Thursday, August 18, 2011

Victor Fuchs solves the "doctor's dilemma"-appropriate care is cost effective and ethical too

Victor R. Fuchs,Economics Professor Emeritus at Stanford, wrote a Perspective commentary in the August 18,2011 Issue of the New England Journal of Medicine entitled: The Doctor's Dilemma-What is "Appropriate" Care ?

The dilemma he describes is the following;

"How can a commitment to cost-effective care ( as physicians have been "committed" to that since the Physician charter and the New Professionalism) be reconciled with a fundamental principle of primacy of patient welfare"


Fuchs tell the readers if all the physicians in a given health care collective practice (as in HMOs and now Accountable care Organizations) cost effective medicine the resources saved can be used for the benefit of the defined population which includes the patients of the physician who seemingly may face a conflict. So, if all the physicians act in the same way all patients benefit.

I believe Fuchs conflates the good of group as indicated by some aggregate number with the good of each individual in a particular situation in which a particular individual may not enjoy the benefit and may actually be harmed. In fact cost effectiveness analysis involves aggregate data. With any outcome in a group some may benefit some may be harmed.

In his closing paragraph, Fuchs tells us that when a physician works in a health care collective in which there is a fixed annual budget the physician resolves the dilemma by favoring the cost effective option. This according to Fuchs become "appropriate". ( Why does Fuchs use quotes marks?) So,the cost effective choice is the appropriate choice and also the ethical one. It is ethical in the moral calculus of Kant "because if all physicians act the same way,all patients benefit" .

The basis of Kant's ethical precepts was the categorical imperative which is:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can,at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
"

In other words, a person acts morally when he acts as if that conduct were establishing a universal law governing others in a similar situation.


I find it interesting and puzzling that Fuchs uses a Kantian based ethical argument to support cost effectiveness based decisions in health care as cost effectiveness analysis is typically justified using a consequentialist type argument. Philosophical support for the notion of resource allocation based on the best bang for the buck is supplied by this outcome based school of ethics.

Kantian ethics, on the other hand, is duty or rule based ,an approach called deontological in the literature of ethics.Kant believed that the individual should be considered an end in himself not as a means to an end. In the medical collective the individual's interests are subjugated to the aggregated good of the group;the individual functioning as a means to achieve the greater good of the collective whether or not a particular member of the collective enjoys the benefit.

In the moral conflict between the physician's fiduciary duty to do what is right for the individual patient and the imperative to serve the best interests ( by what ever aggregate parameter that is being used) of the group as a whole, would not Kantian rule-duty based ethics support the rule of do what is best for your patient and patient is a singular noun. If Fuchs is suggesting that cost effectiveness analysis should be determinative in medical decisions and that it is justified by Kantian ethics, I suppose the "rule" would be always do what is cost effective.Never mind that pesky notion of a person being considered an end in himself and not as a means.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Once again price control in medicine results in shortages,this time cancer drugs

There has been and continues to be shortages in some of the older well proven cancer drugs. See here for an explanation of what is happening there.

Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel blames much of the problem of the 2001 Medicare Prescription Improvement and Modernization Act.

Here is a quote from Emanuel's opinion piece in the August 6,2011 NYT Sunday Review:

The act had an unintended consequence. In the first two or three years after a cancer drug goes generic, its price can drop by as much as 90 percent as manufacturers compete for market share. But if a shortage develops, the drug’s price should be able to increase again to attract more manufacturers. Because the 2003 act effectively limits drug price increases, it prevents this from happening. The low profit margins mean that manufacturers face a hard choice: lose money producing a lifesaving drug or switch limited production capacity to a more lucrative drug.

The economist Arnold Kling is fond of saying that they teach all the important stuff in Econ 101 not saving any big secrets for more advance study.I'm fairly sure Econ 101 explains the effects of wage and price controls and that incentives matter.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Aggregate Healthiness, Gross Body Health,Keynesian Medicine

I have ranted and sometime more reflectively argued quietly against the morality of the aggregate as it applies to medical practice. Rules,pay for performance (now re branded as value based purchasing) rely on the statistical aggregates and often overly simplified guidelines. I know, aggregates can be useful in a number of contexts but the individual patient ( what other kind of patient is there?) may have her interest devoured by obsession with rules based on the statistical abstractions.

Here, George Mason Economist,Don Boudreaux, tells a satirical tale about a medical analogue to Keynesian aggregate demand.

No, the fictional gross body health is not exactly what I argue about with the guideline-P4P thrust in clinical medicine but Boudreaux's commentary is worth reading.

Monday, August 01, 2011

MIT Prof discovers people like to spend other people's money

Amy Finkelstein,a PhD economist from MIT,has "discovered" that people when given a card that lets them buy something cheaper than they could otherwise buy more stuff. Thanks to David Accad at the blog, Alert and Oriented,for calling this discovery to my attention.

This link from a news story on the discovery briefly discusses her findings and the mind boggling claim that this finding will change thinking about health care spending. Yeah, it is that old
"demand curves slope downward" thing again. Note: this is not breaking news her reports and news items on it date back to 2007 but I have fallen way behind on my health wonk literature reading.

Here is a quote from the news report:
Already, Finkelstein's analysis is shaking up views across the political spectrum. "This is pathbreaking work," says Joseph R. Antos, a health economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Adds the more liberal MIT economist Jonathan Gruber: "This really changes the whole landscape in the way we think about health economics."


Wow, pathbreaking work.Apparently no one heard or remembered what Milton Friedman had said about the ways people can spend.See here for that concept in Dr.Friedman's own words.The key point here is that when you spend someone else's money on yourself , you are not very careful about how much you spend.

Dr. Finkelstein work supports the notion that health care costs have increased in no small measure because millions of older American have Medicare insurance and they realize that they can get medical services much cheaper than otherwise when they show their card to various health care providers. The fact that some health care wonks thought her findings will change the way people will think about health care policy seems to mean that until now some health care experts believed that demand curves slope upward. Some admirers of Milton Friedman are celebrating the 99th anniversary of his birth. See here. Maybe health care economists might browse through some of his work.Perhaps an econometric demonstration of the absence of a free lunch might be forthcoming.