Monday, November 05, 2012

Is the term "medical commons" a useful analogy to US health care or a lame figure of speech



  In the Animal kingdom,the rule is eat or be eaten;in the human kingdom,define or be defined. Thomas Szasz

A recurrent meme in the discourse of medical policy  is the notion of the "medical commons". This term can be traced back to the phrase " the tragedy of the commons" which was a term introduced in a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin.

Tragedy of the Commons refers to the situation in which a shared resource is depleted by individuals acting in their own short term interest to the detriment of the group.Typical stylized examples are herders overgrazing their sheep on a common field not allowing grass to regrow or fishermen overfishing an area of the ocean depleting the fish population thereby damaging all in the long run.A characteristic of these commons is that the property is unowned or is considered to be common property.In other words there is lack of strong property rights.

The earliest reference I could find for the notion of medical commons (MC) was in a 1975 NEJM special article entitled Protecting the Medical Commons:Who is responsible? by Dr. Howard H. Hiatt.(NEJM 1975;293:235-241,July 31,1975).

Dr. Hiatt made the following gratuitous assertion that medical resources in the country can be viewed as analogous to the grazing area problem.I say gratuitous because Hiatt does not elaborate of how the two phenomena are alike in significant ways.
"The total resources available for medical care can be viewed as analogous to the grazing areas on Hardin's common."
 An analogy is  a type of comparison in which one likens one thing to another in circumstances in which the two things have useful similarities such that knowledge of the one thing can aid in understanding the other.  For example one could consider the human heart to be analogous to a pump.From our understanding of a pump we gain some insight into the mechanics of the heart.

The problem I have with the medical commons analogy is that health care or health care resources share no essential features with the notion of a commons.

 For example, the common field or patch of ocean is owned by no one ( or every one,which in some regards is the same thing ) whereas medical resources are owned by numerous entities in particular. Hospital X is owned by someone or some real economic entity,a corporation  or perhaps a local government or the federal government. The MRI units and the physical therapy units and the commercial labs are all owned by someone or other. Ownership involves the right to use one's property,to dispose of one's property and to exclude others from the property. In the commons all can use the property but do not enjoy the other  elements of property ownership.

In the commons,all are allowed to bring in the sheep to feed but every patient cannot simply go to any of the numerous health care facilities and partake of their offering for free and ad lib.

The "tragedy" in the tragedy of the commons is that overuse leads to resource depletion but does overuse (how ever defined) of health care resources deplete those resource. I argue just the opposite .

 As the demand for health care resources increases often so does the supply. As demand for hip replacements goes up more facilities have become available for orthopedic surgery, the same for cardiac caths and for MRI etc etc.Increasing demand and use of medical resources does not deplete them but can lead to their increase.No one is using up the MRI exams.

 The issue is not the depletion of resources as one might think using the flawed medical commons analogy, rather it is the expenditure for using those resources about which alarms have been sounded. Even here though, money spend on a MRI or surgery or whatever is not money hurled down a black hold- it is simply redistributed . But could not that money have been better spent by for example preschool tutoring for under privileged inner city youth? Maybe, but there will always be some other use for money that is spent on any thing. So is the resource that is being "depleted" in the medical commons money or more accurately other people's money or the perception that it is other people's money.


If the medical common analogy is thought to be appropriate and valid why would not the following be equally so; the home construction commons,the  food supply commons, the hair care commons,the automobile manufacturing commons. Why do we not hear alarms being sounded about spoiling of the home construction industry by overbuilding or too many customers spoiling the food supply commons?After all money spent on burgers cannot be spent on housing for the poor. Hint: Much of medical care is paid for using someone else's money.


While a grassy field for the villager's sheep to graze can be defined by a specific surveyor description, the "medical commons" is a extremely large amorphous array,the elements of which defy enumeration, and is every changing, with some elements growing ,others contracting and re arrangements cropping up constantly. Various entities own various elements of this array-society owns none even though various government entities own some but the government is not society.

The skills,and knowledge of thousands of physicians are aggregated and then allocated as if somehow society own them.There is no easily defined entity called "medical resources". Rather,it is an amorphous abstraction.Further, to speak of allocation means some one or some elite group will be the "allocator in chief ".

 If there is societal allocation decisions will not be made by thousands of individual physician-patient pairs.



Dr. Hiatt is a very accomplished medical scientist with a distinguished career .His article in my opinion was an attempt to call attention to what he believed was the need for "society to find ways to govern access and control of the use of the medical commons" and the role that physicians would have in those decisions. In that regard the use of the idea of medical commons was a rhetorical device  to imply that medical resources are in some meaningful sense owned collectively and that society should decide important allocation questions. Governing access and control are the operative words.

Once one accepts the notion that the medical resources are collectively owned then it is a short step to the idea that individual physicians and patients should not be selfishly decide how things are allocated, the allocation must be done for the collective good based on sound, cost effective, utilitarian considerations.Although the discussions speak of a medical commons implying everyone in the country, operationally what we would be dealing with are smaller commons such as that found in and HMO or the current HMO oid entity the ACO which is the panacea flavor of the month.


When someone speaks of society making a decision be wary because there is no one named society and society decides nothing.The medical commons concept is more than a very flawed analogy . It is a rhetorical  tool for the listener or reader to passively accept the notion that health care should be collectivized. Advocates of that may say society decides and society demands but basically some (most ?) of the advocates of that view believe that the medical intellectual elite with the power of the government should make those decisions . They believe that medical care is too complex,too complicated and costs too much to be left in the hands of the individual physician and patient.Drs. Donald Berwick and Troynen Brennan  clearly expressed  the view that the doctor patient decision making "dyad" in their book New Rules should be eliminated.

Here are two quotes expressing the desire to do away with the traditional physician patient relationship , the first from Berwick's New Rules, the second from a 1998 Annals of Internal Medicine article by Dr. Robert Berenson and Hall :

"Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care."

and

"we propose that the devotion to the best interests of each individual be replaced with an ethic of devotion to the best interests of the group for which the physician is personally responsible."

 Of course everyone using the medical commons figure of speech is not an advocate of the new medical ethics or of collectivization of medical care, but once a phrase is used  often enough  it becomes part of the common discourse sometimes (often?) without concern about what it might really mean to some.

If we want to make progress in solving or at least mitigating some of the problems with US health care I suggest referring to a meaningless analogy is not useful except to those whose agenda involves destruction of the old time medical ethics.You might remember the one that emphasized the primary fiduciary duty of the physician to the patient.

The medical commons meme is often invoked in polemics admonishing physician to not order unnecessary testing.Such comments as "spoiling the commons" appear. I suggest that advocates of prudent medical testing need not invoke collectivist views of medical resources or reference to non existent medical commons.

Physicians already have a firm ethical basis for not ordering unnecessary tests and procedures. Two well known,long standing, stalwart precepts cover that very well;beneficence and do no harm.

Ordering unnecessary tests and procedures bump up against both. The harm of doing a test that is not necessary should be evident to a physician before he finishes medical school let alone residency training. The patient is harmed by the cost of the test (even if she only pays a fraction of the cost),by the anxiety of a false positive result and the inevitable cascade of further testing and possible invasive procedures that commonly occur after a false positive result.

Simply put- a physician who orders tests that are not in the interest of the patient is harming his patient and not living up to his fiduciary duty.The problem is not harm to the medical commons,there is no such thing.

It is not an oversight that advocates of the new medical professionalism which posits a co-duty of the physician to the patient and to society conveniently leave the term fiduciary duty out of their discussions and admonitions regarding medical professionalism.The fiduciary duty of the physician to her patients has been nudged out of the definition of a ethical physician and quietly replaced by physician as steward of society's resources.






1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The physician-patient "dyad" with the fee for service arrangement has been the third party's payer worse nightmare.Their war against both has been successful and with the passage of ACA almost completely won, with only retainer medicine standing as a last hold out. Our medical elite leaders have been complicit.