Monday, October 10, 2011

Obamacare-A great opportunity for Medical Hubris

In 2005, I outlined a few thoughts about what I would include in a lecture to medical students about hubris and the practice of medicine. See here. At the time, I had no idea about the surge of exuberant hubris that the next few years would bring although I should have because of the strikingly hubristic five part series in JAMA which was a plea for utilitarian planning for allocation of health care resources.

Hubris is defined as excessive pride or self confidence.From Wikipedia we read that the word implies an overestimation of one's own competence and capabilities particularly as exhibited by someone in a position of power. In Greek tragedy it leads to nemesis, or the end result of harm or ruin. However,in the context of public health expert advice and edicts, it seems to be the beneficiaries of the edits that run into harm's way and not the expert.

Several thinkers have issued warnings to those who would take portions of the scientific wisdom of the day and go forward with hypertrophied self confidence and idealistic certitude to make the world (or their little sector of interest) better.

Boris Pasternak said; " What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth.Life always spills over the rip of every cup." The medical elite in the public health sector who would tell everyone how to eat, or treat all folks with a given medical condition think "Well, not my cup" and charge ahead as if the concept of unintended consequences had never been formulated and that individual variation , personal circumstances and values would not have to be contended with and progress in medical knowledge would be frozen in time so as to not make necessary changes with their determinations.

Morton Hadler ( J.O.M.,Vol 31, pg 823,1989) spoke of various categories of truth including the distinction between scientific truth and clinical truth,the latter informed in part by the former and is determined by the joint efforts of the physician and the patient.

Karl Popper said "We know a great deal but our ignorance is sobering and boundless.All things are insecure and in a state of flux."

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen in their book "Figments of Reality" spoke of "what science offers is not facts but understanding, not answers but contingency plans"

Those type comments could be considered life advice to the newly minted practitioners of various discipline, and in particular , in this commentary to medical doctors.

The type of hubris often seem in novices is typically what I am calling the more benign form and is often cured by experience and seeing highly regarding paradigms and treatment plans replaced by others often 180 degrees from the discarded notion.This is what I call Type 1 hubris. It is an unwarranted and persistent belief in the correctness and permanence of contemporary consensus views.It is a failure to realize they are working with concepts that are often more contingency plans than permanent solutions.This type of hubris often dissipates as the practitioner gains more experience and sees the various ways disease patterns play out and how patient's disease scripts differ from the text book. Aristotle spoke of phronesis or practical wisdom which is the result of combining the lessons of experience with empirical knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge (teche).

However, there is a second type of hubris, a more dangerous form, logically named Type 2. Type 2 includes the over blown pride and hypertrophied confidence in one's beliefs and idealistic certitude as is found Type 1 but in addition includes the internalized imperative to to bring about widespread practice (s) consistent with their version of current medical wisdom or truth. Starkly put" I'm know what should be done,everyone should do it and when someone with Type 2 is in a position of power,let's make them do it.

The five part series of articles published in JAMA in 1994 by David Eddy is , in my opinion,a candidate for the most hubristic series ever published in a major medical journal.Reference is "Rationing Resources while Improving Quality", Eddy, DM, JAMA,1994:272,817-824)

Eddy's answer to the problem of how to save resources while improving quality was to employ the utilitarian maxim/imperative strategy to do the greatest good for the greatest number or make the herd healthier along some metric even though some cows might be worse off.The herd here was a medical collective such as a HMO.This also applies to the ACOs put into play by Obamacare to the extent those entities based as they are on an Underware Gnome type plan will survive .


Dr. Don Berwick speaks of the need for "leaders with ideas" and the need to replace the physician-patient "dyad" with a group outcome oriented decision process authored by the wise leaders with ideas. ( You have to worry when someone talks about "dyads"). Those views conform with the Progressive Medical Axiom of " medicine is too complex and too important to be be left in the hands of the individual physicians and patients."

For most physicians, the Type 1 hubris wears off or withers away after the realities of a few years of clinical experience bump up against the overly simplistic concepts of the novice. Type 2 is what we need to worry about and to fear those leaders in positions of authority (or advisers to those in power) who never caught on to the Hayekian notion of "how little men know about what they imagine they can design..." But no matter, being a public health expert or a medical planner means you have never say you are sorry.

With Obamacare and IPAB's unprecedented powers as well as CMS's control over Medicare,there are great opportunities for leaders with ideas and the requisite amount of hubris to do unprecedented damage to the practice of medicine.

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