This was going to be a post about science-based medicine and the law. Really. I still might write it, maybe even tonight. But before I could get started, I cleared my comment spam. Among the usual expected unsavoury entities hawking the usual unsavoury wares, I found two recent spam comments from professionals who really should know better.
I think the law bloggers handle this better than we on the medical side do. There are plenty of social media evangelists in both fields who can be found online treating new technology as an end and not a means, promoting the ideal of “saying anything” over “saying something,” and generally clogging the ‘tubes with tweets, blog posts, and comments that barely even try to masquerade as anything beyond marketing. At least there are some lawyers out there willing to call “shenanigans” when they see them.
I have yet to see a physician call out his/her colleagues for scammy/scummy behaviour online. Not like some of the blawgs do. Take Ken and Patrick at Popehat, for instance. They’re brutal, and rightfully so. As another blawger, Eric Turkewitz, puts it: “when you outsource your marketing, you outsource your ethics“.
I am no luminary in the medical profession. Given that I blog pseudonymously, you can’t even be sure that I am a medical student. I claim no special authority to make pronouncements on medical ethics. I don’t need to. The following statement should speak for itself:
If you are a medical professional, comment-spamming blogs is not an acceptable marketing tactic. If you find yourself keeping company with SEO hucksters and vendors of penis-enlargement pills, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.Your online obligations don’t end at HIPAA.
Dr. Michelle Scott Tucker of Castle Hill Pediatrics, Carrollton, TX: you wanted search engine visibility. You got it.
These marketing shenanigans are undignified, unethical, and reflect incredibly poorly on the medical profession. I will not be associated with them. If you have a medical blog yourself, I hope you’ll join me. Make it clear to other physicians that indiscriminate spamming is no way to promote a practice. Call them out. Someone has to show them the error of their ways.
I will take another page from Popehat’s book and make the following offer to anyone called out for comment spam at this site:
“I will scrub this post of data identifying [you] and [your practice] on two conditions. First condition, [you] must make a sincere apology for [writing spam comments yourself, or] outsourcing [your] reputation and ethics [...]. Second condition, [you] must provide emails or other documentation identifying the marketeer [you] hired who produced the comment spam and proving their responsibility for this, so that we can alter the post to call them out by name.”
My email is in the upper right-hand corner. You know how to reach me.
I’ve alluded to AMSA’s… interesting choices regarding who they will and will not take money from (or at least, who they will claim not to take money from). Here’s the long-promised photographic evidence: the swag I collected from conference exhibitors.
What you’ll find below the cut includes:
- A pamphlet, a bag, and some pens from Medical Protective, a professional liability insurance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway.
- A Merck Manual (yes, that Merck… the one that makes all these ”pharms” of which AMSA claims to be ”free”).
- Materials from various academies of quackery (as seen earlier).
- A pen, a magnet, and some other swag from the FDA.
- Application forms for various forms of insurance/consumer credit provided by or through AMSA.
- Some stuff from banks.
- Swag NOS.
[My efforts at live-blogging/tweeting have been foiled by the fact that this conference occurs two levels below ground where there is no connectivity of any sort. I guess this means the hotel has me on tape delay...]
The first talk of the morning was by a second-year medical student (Shahram Ahari, UC Davis)who spent some time as a sales rep for Eli Lilly after graduating from Rutgers. He went into sales because he thought it would be an opportunity to connect with clinicians at an intellectual level and discuss the science. Because that’s what a private-sector sales job is all about. Needless to say, he was somewhat disillusioned, especially upon finding that most of his salesforce colleagues weren’t scientists, but… salespeople. Go figure.
The presentation wasn’t irrationally hostile to pharm companies, though I might have caught the suggestion at the end that physicians have an “obligation” to vote the interests of their patients. He explained the many ways in which pharm sales people use the same techniques employed by salespeople in any industry: appeals to emotion backed up by data about the client that is never overtly mentioned.
The discussion was focused almost entirely on the prescriber-marketing interface; I was hoping for some evaluation of the appropriate nature of researcher-industry relationships, which is where (in my view) the controversy is much hotter. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining talk that explained the psychological basis behind all sorts of marketing techniques such as giving away free stuff…
Oh, right! Free stuff! AMSA might claim to be pharm-free, but a quick visit through their exhibition hall revealed a whole host of characters whose money AMSA was more than happy to accept in exchange for a booth. Some of these groups are more savoury than others.
Details to come… truly extraordinary.
For immediate release:
February 22, 2011
Washington, D.C. – The American Medical Association (AMA) announced late last night that it wholeheartedly supports the pro-union protest activities of certain physicians from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine.
Pro-union demonstrators — notably public school teachers — have flooded the state capital, Madison, to voice their displeasure with proposed cuts to pay, benefits, and collective bargaining ability. Meanwhile, a group of idealistic, enterprising physicians have set up shop to aid the protesters in their efforts. Given that these protests have been, fortunately, free from the violence wracking demonstrators in other parts of the world, these inspiring doctors have been using their special expertise for the benefit of the local protester community by writing the “sick notes” that will allow these teachers to keep their pay and jobs after having skipped work to attend the demonstrations.
They are, in short, ”providing real doctor’s notes for people who miss work.”
As has been captured in many of the videos of the protests, these heroic physicians have been able to assess their new ”patients” in mere seconds, doubtlessly utilizing the speed-H&P skills learned by practicing medicine under the AMA-supported system of RVU-based payment.
While some commentators have accused these doctors of ”stealing,” ”lying,” ”falling short of the public’s ethical expectations,” and ”demeaning the doctor-patient relationship,” the AMA would like to commend the work of these courageous physicians, who truly represent the best of American medicine and the future of primary care in this country. They truly are a shining example of what the AMA thinks that medical practice should be.
In addition to showcasing the near-lightspeed pace at which the AMA believes outpatient medicine should be practiced, these doctors — from unlicensed resident to grizzled veteran of community practice alike — exemplify the values that will need to become more commonplace if primary care in the United States is to be revitalized.
In 2007, the AMA’s Initiative to Transform Medical Education (ITME) released its Recommendations for Change in the System of Medical Education, concluding that the current shortage of primary care physicians in the United States is due to a cohort of medical students who are insufficiently altruistic, unwilling to be advocates for social justice issues, and too fixated on problem-solving and intellectual pursuits to be the effective community organizers that primary-care physicians ought to be.
In the view of the AMA, the model of ”primary-care-physician-as-community-organizer-for-social-justice” must replace the model of ”primary-care-physician-as-healer-and-problem-solver” for there to be a future for primary care in this country, especially given the reluctance of the federal government to increase physician payment under the AMA-supported RVU system.
As the voice of America’s doctors, and as the champions of primary care’s bright future as social justice advocacy, we are thrilled to see these Wisconsin physicians living up to the ideals espoused in the ITME recommendations, if not the Hippocratic Oath. The future of primary care is not in practicing medicine; it is in political agitation. These family practitioners are pioneering the way forward for their specialty. They are organizing for their community, and they are advocating for their patients’ sense of social justice, entirely unbound by the conventional problem-solving, clinical-assessment mentality that persists among primary care physicians at their own peril.
The American Medical Association stands with these brave primary care practitioners, and urges them to continue to practice primary care medicine in the best way possible. Only by following in their example can family physicians, outpatient internists, and pediatricians ”win the future” for their specialties in this environment of harsh RVU economics.
In case you haven’t realized by now, this is not an AMA press release. It is a satire/parody of the AMA’s positions on medical education and physician supply in the context of the primary care shortage. Use of the AMA name is protected fair use. For more disclaimers, see my ”About” page.
I’m not the first person to have made this point, but a recent post on HIT/EMR adoption at KevinMD got me thinking about it again:
Many clinicians are resisting the implementation of electronic medical records and other forward-thinking technologies because they dislike change, and technology for that matter. This is likely because the technology that is being imposed on them is difficult to use, or doesn’t feel natural to them.
This is something one hears a great deal of during discussions of physicians and technology. “Physicians are stubborn and resistant to change.” Let’s be honest, who doesn’t know a physician (or 2, or 20) that fits this description?
On its own, this is not a facially illogical explanation for low EMR uptake and resistance to health IT mandates from the government. Of course, many of the prominent organizations who believe that our salvation lies in EMRs and that those pesky, technophobic physicians need to fall into line (think Commonwealth Fund) are the ones who continually remind us that the reason behind the long, inexorable march of increasing health care costs is…
… physicians’ constant readiness and willingness to adopt new technologies and innovations when they feel it will improve patient care, or the bottom line.
Having never seen anyone from these schools of thought even try to explain how these two views are compatible, I can only conclude that some hard doctrinal choices are in order.
Argument by Anecdote!
Last week, I was shadowing an older, outpatient physician in a procedure-heavy specialty who is on the voluntary faculty at SUMS, and admits to SUMS’ main teaching site. We talked for a while about the hospital/med school EMR, which we both agree is a nightmarish monstrosity. He was explaining how he was holding off on the paper –> electronic conversion for as long as possible (i.e. until the school forced him), because the product was just so terrible.
He then proceeded to show me the brand-new Siemens ultrasound system that he and his partner had purchased not two weeks ago. He explained the effort that he went through to train himself on it and its new features, and how it was already an improvement over the model he had been using previously. He then proceeded to reminisce about all of the technical wizardry that had been invented in his professional lifetime that he now uses routinely in the office, because he feels that it enhances his ability to care for his patients.
He really, really does not want to switch to the hospital EMR.
Stubborn, resistant to change, and fearful of new technology? You tell me.
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though, one must add, not always for the better. [...] In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.
If I held myself to such high standards, I would tell you that I find the thrust of what I see as mainline bioethical thought to be “icky,” and from there res ipsa loquitur. However, I’d like to think that my distaste has more than mere “revulsion” behind it, and as such the matter is not so easily disposed of.
In the “standard” ethics and professionalism lectures, medical students are taught that medical ethics rest on three foundational pillars: non-maleficence (“do no harm”); beneficence (“do what’s best for your patient”); and autonomy (“act in accordance with your patient’s wishes”).
Who decides what’s best for the patient, or what constitutes harm? Logically, it should be the patient! When the stakes are high, so too should be the barriers for a physician to substitute his or her goals and values for the patient’s.
SUMS has a thriving medical ethics program, and we’ve had the opportunity to hear clinicians and medical ethicists from SUMS and from farther afield talk about ethical conundrums they’ve seen on the wards. Every presentation has shared one feature, without fail: it’s only an ethical conundrum (usually meriting a call to the bioethics committee) when the physician doesn’t agree with a patient’s choice, and has been unable to successfully use persuasion or coercion to change the patient’s mind.
This seems like a trivial observation at first. After all, why call the ethics committee to adjudicate a matter where the physician and patient are in perfect agreement (aside from rarer edge cases where this happens, usually involving experimental procedures)? It makes perfect sense!
What this means though, is that the medical ethicist has become the person to provide cover for a physician to override the patient’s autonomy. By virtue of selection bias in the cases they are asked to adjudicate, and the ever-present threat of regulatory capture, the role of “medical ethics” runs the risk of devolving into Paternalism 2.0. “We know what’s best for you, and if you don’t believe us, we’ll make you.” What’s more, when the medical ethicist is nothing more than the cudgel with which the physician forces his goals onto his patient, what claim does the ethicist then have to support his monopoly on decision-making in this sphere?
Admittedly, this image of medical ethics is a caricature. But to see the danger that lies in store, look no further than their cousins: the bioethicists.
At every turn I can think of, bioethics has established itself as the true “Ideology of ‘No.’” Whether dealing with BRCA gene testing for breast cancer susceptibility, assisted reproduction technologies, APOE4 screening for Alzheimer’s susceptibility, or “cosmetic” fetal ultrasound, mainstream bioethical opinion always seems to come down on the side of denying information to patients. Hardly the patient-empowering mindset that marked the field’s nascent days.
So why has the medical ethics / bioethics enterprise come to undervalue patient autonomy so extensively? I offer two preliminary hypotheses.
First is the fact that medical ethics and bioethics are situated in an academic-institutional environment that usually leans left-liberal (Progressive). Whether the institution makes the people, or the people make the institution, it comes out to the same thing: the setting is one that inculcates a predilection for top-down technocratic control. I think that this assessment is valid, regardless of what you think of the merits of different political philosophies.
The second one is, in my mind, more interesting. Public choice theory reminds us that bureaucrats, leaders, institutions, and their people do not exist in a world devoid of incentives and personal agendas. As an ethicist, when you say “no,” you entrench the need for your services… there needs to be someone with the authority to say “yes,” and what better way to establish your authority then by saying “no?” When you posit increasingly more complex models for evaluating ethical dilemmas — “autonomy, beneficence, and non-maleficence” just don’t cut it — you create an institutional need for someone with expertise in dealing with these complex rules to act as interpreter, and thereby increase your own power and prestige. Giving full weight to patient autonomy would undermine the need for your services.
This isn’t to say that ethicists make decisions with an explicit eye to entrenching their influence in the medical setting. It is, however, a reminder that we should always be asking ourselves: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers?
That, and the “wisdom” of repugnance is only as valid as the reasoning that supports it. Having “a bad feeling” about something doesn’t cut it when lives are on the line.
Here are two health policy developments from the past week… near-poetic juxtaposition:
Via John Goodman, a link to Cato’s Michael Cannon writing at Kaiser Health News to take on the White House’s contention that the PPACA’s new insurance regulations collectively represent “consumer protections” that Republicans should be wary of tampering with. Cannon argues that this is a mis-branding, and that while these protections are superficially appealing, they will have (and have had) deleterious effects below the surface.
Via Jason Shafrin, an article by the American Health Lawyers Association outlining the existing legal barriers to the establishment of one of the PPACA’s much-hyped cost-control/delivery-improvement mechanisms: the Accountable Car Organization (ACO). The list of existing regulations that may need to be waived is extensive, including elements of the Stark Law, prohibitions on balance billing Medicare beneficiaries, and various anti-kickback provisions… the sorts of things that one might characterize as consumer protections.
Truly delicious, isn’t it?
This raises the question: if these longstanding consumer protections intended to prevent physician conflict-of-interest and Medicare beneficiary exploitation need to be brushed aside (for some entities, anyhow) to allow the Next Big Thing in health policy to go forward, what does that say about their worth and utility more generally?
Why should we be any less wary of tampering with these “consumer protections” than the ones allegedly found in the PPACA?
If you support “consumer protection” generally, especially those added in the PPACA, I’m curious: if the latter set of regulations do end up getting waived for nascent ACOs, as I expect they will in at least some cases, will those ACOs’ patients be worse off for the lack of protection?