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.
Opioids and Mental Health Disorders

Opioids and Mental Health Disorders

Opioids and mental health disorders probably do not seem like a good mix in anyone’s mind. I’m sure most of the general public would find it problematic to prescribe opioids to someone with a mental health disorder, but every day, physicians across the country prescribe large numbers of opioid prescriptions to these patients.

 

Dave Chase, in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, writes, “According to a recent study, more than half of all opioid prescriptions in the United States annually go to adults with a mental illness, who represent just 16 percent of the U.S. population.”

 

Why do we over-prescribe so many opioids to people with mental health illnesses? I can think of three potential causal models that lead to our over prescription of opioids for people with mental health disorders. 1: our system was never set up to treat health broadly speaking, 2: mental health has always been stigmatized and hidden in America, and 3: we have sabotaged ideas of community in the United States as we pursue our own self-interests and spend unreasonable amounts of time working and commuting.

 

1: The history of the American medical system was focused on interventions and solving health problems after the problem had popped up. Insurance companies were created to help people access different parts of the medical system, and over time private insurance has become more or less the only way to reasonably access affordable medical care in the United States. Our reliance on third party payers allowed prices to profligate, and it feels as though we are at a point where we can’t turn the ship around. If you have a mental health disorder, you are less likely to have stable employment, which means you are less likely to have quality health insurance provided through your job, and less likely to establish the mental health care that you need. As a result, you probably see your primary care provider and end up with an opioid prescription during your 10 minute appointment because your doctor doesn’t have time to really work with you on addressing your mental health challenges.

 

2: There are many examples throughout history of people hiding children with intellectual disabilities. Generations before us warehoused children in mental health institutions that did little to help improve health. We are mostly beyond that today, but nevertheless, we hide anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, and other mental health challenges from our friends, families, and coworkers. We still don’t do a good job of accepting that mental health disorders are not something that people should be ashamed of, and many people do not seek appropriate care but instead life lives that are less than healthy, where ending up with an opioid prescription, or self-medicating with something worse, is a less public alternative to dealing with mental health challenges.

 

3: Tying both points one and  two together, our lack of community makes mental health management almost impossible. We don’t have a lot of friends and family members that we can truly rely on for help with physical, mental, and emotional challenges. It may take a village to raise a kid, but we have run away from our villages to hide in our suburbs. We have dis-invested in the communities where we live and as a result, people with mental health disorders lack the social support systems necessary to truly address their needs. Even if people with mental health issues have some family and friends close by, those who they rely on probably lack the support they need to care for someone with mental health challenges. We spend too much time at work, spend too much time commuting to work, and don’t have time to help those who are more vulnerable. As a result, we simply shut people with mental health disorders out of our lives and out of society, and numb their lives with opioids.

 

Our country has not set up a system that truly takes care of our health, from before we are sick or have significant health challenges through to a successful recovery. We have overloaded the system that we built which was designed for people with the means to afford care after they were ill. We have ignored mental health and pretended we didn’t know it was an issue, until now, when it is too late and we don’t have the supports we need. Our communities are non-existent, and taking the steps to care for our community feels impossible.

 

The path forward involves a shift in how we provide, pay for, and think about healthcare. The systems we turn to for health need to move up-stream, where we focus on health before people are sick. To do that, we have to be honest about things like mental health, we have to be willing to provide spaces and community so that people can engage with healthy lifestyles and behaviors. We have to break out of our 40 hour work-weeks, and find ways to work closer to where we live, to end the soul sucking commutes that so many of us have. We have to give people time, and develop communities of support so that we can take care of our health and the health of those most vulnerable people in our communities. Without making these transformational changes, we will be stuck in our default of opioid prescriptions, unable to give people what they need to live healthy and meaningful lives.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.