Medical Progress

What does medical progress look like? To many, medical progress looks like new machines, artificial intelligence to read your medical reports and x-rays, or new pharmaceutical medications to solve all your ailments with a simple pill. However, much of medical progress might be improved communication, better management and operating procedures, and better understandings of statistics and risk. In the book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer suggests that there is a huge opportunity for improving physician understanding of risk, improved communication around statistics, and better processes related to risk that would help spur real medical progress.

 

He writes, “Medical progress has become associated with better technologies, not with better doctors who understand these technologies.” Gigerenzer argues that there is currently an “unbelievable failure of medical schools to provide efficient training in risk literacy.” Much of the focus of medical schools and physician education is on memorizing facts about specific disease states, treatments, and how a healthy body should look. What is not focused on, in Gigerenzer’s 2014 argument, is how physicians understand the statistical results from empirical studies, how physicians interpret risk given a specific biological marker, and how physicians can communicate risk to patients in a way that adequately inform their healthcare decisions.

 

Our health is complex. We all have different genes, different family histories, different exposures to environmental hazards, and different lifestyles. These factors interact in many complex ways, and our health is often a downstream consequence of many fixed factors (like genetics) and many social determinants of health (like whether we have a safe park that we can walk, or whether we grew up in a house infested with mold). Understanding how all these factors interact and shape our current health is not easy.

 

Adding new technology to the mix can help us improve our treatments, our diagnoses, and our lifestyle or environment. However, simply layering new technology onto existing complexity is not enough to really improve our health. Medical progress requires better ways to use and understand the technology that we introduce, otherwise we are adding layers to the existing complexity. If physicians cannot understand, cannot communicate, and cannot help people make reasonable decisions based on technology and the data that feeds into it, then we won’t see the medical progress we all hope for. It is important that physicians be able to understand the complexity, the risk, and the statistics involved so that patients can learn how to actually improve their behaviors and lifestyles and so that societies can address social determinants of health to better everyone’s lives.
Medical Technologies

The Problem with Healthcare Technology

In my last post I wrote about hidden costs of the healthcare system in America. I wrote about tax breaks for employers who offer health benefits, and I wrote about third party insurance preventing the healthcare system from working like a pure market. This post introduces one consequence of the hidden costs of our system and the ways in which our system fails to act like a market: the high cost of medical technologies.

 

In The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, Dave Chase writes, “We ended up focusing on a certain type of high-technology, acute medical care – which we financially reward far more than lower-level preventive and chronic care – without regard for the quality of the outcomes or value of the care.”

 

When I took a healthcare policy and administration class along with a healthcare economics class for my graduate studies, I was surprised to see a critique of advancing medical technologies as part of the problem of American healthcare costs. I live in Reno, under the sphere of influence of the Bay Area, where technological solutions to global problems are hailed as the cure-all, deus ex machina that we need for a peaceful and prosperous world. I always thought that better medical technology saved lives, made us healthier, and ultimately reduced cost by being more efficient and precise than older technologies.

 

As it turns out, new medical technologies are incredibly expensive, and often times the benefits that patients receive are only marginally better than what existing technology offers. In some instances those marginal improvements make the difference between life and death, but in many instances, the new technologies might only add a few months of life to a terminal diagnosis, a few additional months lived in pain and fear. In other instances, the new technologies might add a little more comfort or certainty in a patient’s procedure or diagnosis, but it is fair to question whether its really necessary and worth the additional cost.

 

The quote from Chase reveals that when we are shielded from the costs of care, and when we remove market aspects from the healthcare system, we adopte a mindset that healthcare equals expensive interventions with high cost technology. I had clearly bought into this narrative prior to my graduate studies. The alternative that Chase highlights in his book, which we have underdeveloped in the United States, is to move upstream, and take care of people at a preventative level before they are sick and before they need expensive technological interventions. Developing systems, structures, and norms for healthy lifestyles will do more to reduce costs than the development of new magical cures and technological fixes. Our priorities and the focus of our system is flawed, and a as a result we focus on high cost interventions within a system no one is happy with. Rather than develop a system that actually supports healthy living, we have fished around for quick, high-cost technological solutions to our health woes.
Constructive Thoughts on Wellness

Constructive Thoughts on Wellness

There is an argument in the world of public health that the American medical system is too focused on solving problems rather than preventing problems. This argument that is presented in Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland, expressed by Dr. Alex Cahana, “The U.S. medical system is good at fighting disease, … and awful at leading people to wellness.”

 

The difference between fighting disease and leading people to wellness has to do with where you step in to help with people’s health. Our country generally focuses on providing medical care and attention after someone has gotten sick. We ask doctors, nurses, and medical professionals to correct a huge range of problems, many of which stem from bad habits, unhealthy environmental factors, and conditions that are generally beyond the control of an individual, and not open to medical interventions. Attacking the problem once it has already developed, once a set of factors have set in that promote the health problem, makes any real changes expensive and difficult.

 

Wellness requires that we think about medical care, costs, and health further upstream, before anyone ever gets sick. Consider the idea of wellness in the context of car maintenance (I know, I know, I just wrote about the problems with comparing ourselves to cars, but this will be helpful).

 

If you regularly change your oil, rotate your tires, and drive as if your grandma was in the car with you, then your vehicle is going to operate more smoothly with fewer major costs (in general) throughout its entire life. You are making small interventions along the way to make sure your car is operating optimally. The costs of changing your oil and putting in the necessary effort to keep it working well are not trivial, but we know that those costs are less than what we might face otherwise.

 

Failing to maintain our vehicle could lead to a catastrophic engine failure. Driving our car like a teenager that just downed two Redbulls is going to put a lot of strain on the vehicle, wearing out our tires and breaks much faster. When things wear our quicker, when unexpected failures occur, we suddenly have to pay a lot more money to keep the car going.

 

Our bodies are similar, and whether it is our national Medicaid or Medicare systems, or our private health insurance systems, the cost we pay for healthcare is interconnected with where we step in to try to make people healthy. Paying for interventions downstream, once we already have health problems is expensive. It is equivalent waiting until our human check engine lights turn on before we consider doing anything to help our health. The solution that many medical professionals and many public health researchers encourage is moving upstream from the actual health problems that develop to focus on interventions before anyone develops terrible disease. The idea is to focus on wellness first, and hope we don’t have to pay for as much medical care for the prohibitively expensive diseases down the road. Rather than focusing all our effort on solving disease, we can redirect some of the money and effort into improving our environments, finding new ways to help people adopt healthy lifestyles, and finding more ways to connect and help us share in wellness as a community.
Technology & Pain

Questioning Our Confidence in Technological Solutions

Sam Quinones interviewed Alex Cahan, a pain medicine specialist in New York, for his book Dreamland. He is quoted in the book talking about the approach that most people have toward pain and alleviating their pain. Many people want an immediate solution that comes from technology and allows them to continue living their life as they always have.

 

Quinones writes, “Cahana saw stuff [Author Note: unproven medical treatments, more surgeries, more pills, etc…] as the problem. Our reverence for technology blinded us to more holistic solutions.” The holistic approach is not one of mystic arts or managing ones energy, but is an approach focused on how we live and what health habits we have. Smoking, minimal exercise, and living with stress that we can’t regulate are all parts of our life that can make the physical pain that we experience much worse, or can lead to worsening health and pain developing from other real medical conditions. An approach to pain medicine that doesn’t consider our actual lifestyle cannot help address the root of our pain.

 

Quinones continues with a quote from Cahana, “We got to the moon, invented the internet. We can do anything. It’s inconceivable to think there are problems that don’t have a technological solution. To go from I can do anything to I deserve everything is very quick.” 

 

Cahan’s argument is that our technological innovations and the stories we tell about our scientific progress blinds us from the reality of the human body. We are not machines, we are not our own technological innovations, even if we like to believe that we can all be Iron Man. The reality is that we have to think about how we live, about the things we do, and about what could be changed, adapted, or included in our lives to help us be more healthy and experience less pain. We don’t have to believe in a mystical energy around our bodies. We don’t have to turn to medical treatments that are not proven to be safe or effective. But we do have to think about what is important in our lives, what values we hold, and how we can make changes that help us align with  those values in a healthy and reasonable way. Once we have seen where we can make changes in our actual lives and what habits can help us improve our health and reduce our pain, it is up to us to live accordingly, not up to technology to instantly solve our problems.