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Cavalcade of Risk #149: Single Best Answer

January 25, 2012 9 comments

As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to rev up the studying for the licensing exam. A lot of the studying takes the form of practice questions. They’re actually a lot of fun to do: they force you to think actively about the clinical scenario, keep you on your toes, and make it near-impossible for your eyes to glaze over as you semi-consciously read the same page for the 10th time in a row as your eyelids begin to feel heavy, droop, and you start to….

Yikes! Where was I? Right! The Cavalcade is back! Since I’m sure that most of you don’t believe me when I say that doing practice questions is actually fun, I’m going to use this opportunity to try to convince you. With the aid of sophisticated, peer-reviewed psychometric techniques (or not), I have converted each entry into a USMLE-style “single best answer” multiple choice question. Let’s see how you do!

 

Cavalcade of Risk: Step 1[49]

 

Instructions: For each of the following test items, select the one answer that best answers the question posed in the stem.

From Boomer at Boomer&Echo: Which of the following behaviours of financial advisors correlates with the lowest risk of defrauding investors?
a) Claiming to have secret/exclusive insider tips that “your broker doesn’t want you to know.”
b) Counseling clients that investments with higher expected returns tend to be riskier.
c) Offering to move your money offshore to avoid taxation.
d) Pressuring you into making a hasty decision on an “exploding offer.”
e) Charging abnormally high membership fees.

From Ken Faulkenberry at the AAAMP Blog: If shares of the Notwithstanding Blog Internet Empire (NBIE) earned a 8% return in 2011 and exhibited a beta of +1.2 relative to a benchmark of shares in all medical blogs that collectively earned a 5% return, then:
a) The alpha for NBIE in 2011 was +2, making it a good investment.
b) The alpha for NBIE in 2011 was +3, making it a good investment.
c) The alpha for NBIE in 2011 was -3, making it a bad investment.
d) The alpha for NBIE in 2011 was -6.8, making it a bad investment.
e) The alpha for NBIE in 2011 cannot be calculated with this information.

From Van R. Mayhall III at the Insurance Regulatory Law Blog: Which of the following statements DOES NOT accurately characterize insurance company insolvency:
a) Most state-based insurance guaranty associations are more comparable to private member-based associations than true state agencies.
b) Insurance companies are subject to unique state-based insolvency protocols in lieu of entering the federal bankruptcy system.
c) Payouts from state insurance guaranty associations are subject to statutory caps.
d) Insurance guaranty associations are intended to provide “bailout” financing to prop up faltering insurers.
e) None of the above.

From Emily Holbrook at Risk Management Monitor: The shoe-shopping website Zappos.com recently earned positive press for:
a) Losing your examiner’s personal information, along with that of millions of other customers.
b) Locking out customers from your examiner’s home country for 4 days after a data breach.
c) Being named in a potentially-class action lawsuit seeking damages as a result of a data breach.
d) Having “some analysts” criticize the company’s response.
e) Having “some analysts” praise the company’s response.

From Jason Shafrin, the Healthcare Economist: Medicare’s new value-based purchasing initiative, which aims to reduce payment to “low-quality” doctors, currently uses treatment costs for which of the following chronic diseases as an element of its cost measure (as distinct from its quality measure):
a) Hypertension
b) Alzheimer’s disease
c) Diabetes
d) Lung cancer
e) Breast cancer

From Louise Norris at Colorado Health Insurance Insider: Colorado’s Medicaid program has recently undergone much change and provoked a great deal of controversy. What happened at the end of 2010 to put Colorado’s Medicaid program on better financial footing?
a) Successful negotiations to lower the fee schedule for physicians’ services.
b) A 55% increase in enrollment relative to 2007.
c) A one-time $13.7 million grant from CMS.
d) New dedicated revenue from a sales tax increase.
e) The introduction of Medicaid Managed Care programs.

From Dr. Jaan Sidorov, the Disease Management Care Blog: Which of the following is an accurate characterization of Dr. Sidorov’s assessment of Health Insurance Exchanges (HIEs) and recent Kaiser Health News commentary on the subject?
a) The left is doing their best to nurture this fledgling institution to maturity in anticipation of the PPACA’s full rollout.
b) It’s reasonable for consumers to spend more time shopping for consumer electronics than for health insurance.
c) Government-run HIEs will eventually match the ease-of-use and “cool” factor of iPhone apps and online purchasing aids.
d) Multiple insurance options on HIEs include variations in provider tiers, out-of-pocket costs, and exclusions.
e) Consumer expectations for HIEs will eventually be exceeded.

From Julie Ferguson at Workers Comp Insider: Doctors’ deaths differ from the deaths of other Americans in that:
a) Doctors often choose to forgo lifesaving chemo, radiation, and procedures.
b) Paradoxically, doctors often do not have access to the full range of lifesaving technologies as the rest of society.
c) Non-physicians tend to be more ready to accept death.
d) Doctors have a cultural bias against accepting death that isn’t shared by society at large.
e) Non-physicians who choose to fight their disease are often pressured by friends and family to be serene in the face of death.

Answer Key
Of course, since you read all the entries, you don’t need one! But just in case: B; A; D; E; C; C; D; A.

Examiner’s Notes

As always, it’s an honour and a pleasure to host the Cavalcade of Risk! If this is your first time at the Notwithstanding Blog, or if you’re coming back after a prolonged absence, I encourage you to take a moment and poke around some of other posts here. From health care policy to health professions training (i.e. medical school), I’ve got it covered.

The 150th(!) Cavalcade will be hosted on February 8th at My Wealth Builder.


Some Friendly, Unsolicited Advice for PNHP

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), as the name suggests, is the biggest and best-known group of American physicians who support replacing the current health care system with a national single-payer. I used to be a big booster of this idea, but it doesn’t take much poking around this website to figure out that my feelings towards American single-payer reform have cooled considerably (to say the least).

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of events run by senior PNHP officers at SUMS and at other venues (e.g. the AMSA conference back in March). At one of the more recent events, I had the privilege of speaking at length to some of their representatives at length. As you might expect, the resulting discussion was direct but cordial.

Though I disagree with their proposed policies, I do respect PNHP as an organization. It is one of the biggest mobilizers of physicians and medical students who are in favour of radically changing how American health care operates. Their passion is palpable at even the most informal event. They do have a contribution to make to the health policy conversation. Unfortunately, while there is an intellectually-coherent case to be made for single-payer (a mistaken case, in my view, but respectable and honest), I have yet to hear it from anybody at PNHP (n=small).

I harbour no illusions about my ability to persuade hard-core single-payer believers in a short blog post. I do, however, have some friendly and hopefully helpful advice on how to talk to the uninitiated and the un-converted more productively:

1) Don’t try to twist the data to support your case. It shows. At best, data on Medicare-vs.-private administrative costs are equivocal, cross-country infant mortality comparisons are spurious, life expectancy at birth captures a lot of mortality that is out of the hands of the healthcare system, and so on. The empirical case for single-payer superiority is thin gruel.

2) When someone asks whether you’d trust a Republican President and Congress to implement single-payer well, don’t duck the question. It’s a more important one than you seem to acknowledge. If you want to centralize control in government, be prepared to talk about how you will deal with your ideological opponents who tend to win elections every now and then.

3) Your moral argument is a lot stronger than your empirical argument. Why not make it explicit? Americans don’t tend towards collectivism, but neither are most people data-oriented policy wonks. Instead of making a weak case based on weak data, you should be prepared to talk about the moral strengths of single-payer relative to the alternatives. Where are the mentions of equity, obligation, and collectivism? (I ask this seriously, not passive-aggressively)

4) Be fluent in the language business, politics, and economics. When your executives are being matched point-for-point by medical students who majored in biochemistry and similar fields, you know you have a problem. If you’re going to call for the dismantling of private insurance, have some idea of how the sector actually operates. If you want to give control of the health system to government, be able to discuss the nuances of Washington power structures. Be able to respond to phrases like “deadweight loss,” “price-vs.-income problems,” and “underwriting” with more than a blank stare.

5) Anecdotes are rarely dispositive of policy questions. When someone points this out about anecdotes involving people you know, don’t get offended; this rarely advances discussion. When you introduce your friend’s problems to the debate, it’s not your opponent who’s trying to use them to score “cheap points.”

6) Milton Friedman is said to have told an up-and-coming Walter Williams, after the latter appeared on TV to discuss school choice, that “[Williams] was right about everything but [had] made one mistake [...], when you talk about liberty, you have to smile.” You may not be talking about liberty as Friedman understood the term, but his advice is every bit as applicable.

 

Cavalcade of Risk #135: Independence Days Edition

July 13, 2011 5 comments

July 2011 has given us many causes to celebrate, and we’re not even half-way in! Early July is when we see Canada/Independence/Bastille Day celebrations in Canada, the United States, and France respectively. This past Saturday was the first day of independence for the brand-new Republic of South Sudan. And today, for the 135th iteration of the Cavalcade of Risk blog carnival, I am pleased to present nine incredibly informative and insightful submissions (plus one of my own) for your edification.

In recognition of all of the countries with July independence days, we’re going to be running a carnival sideshow at this blog carnival today. Interspersed with the submissions will be a small number of flags with trivia-esque hints for countries with July national days; the names of the countries will be at the end of the post. Hopefully this will be an entertaining mid-July “trivial pursuit” to accompany the serious business of risk discussed in the submissions!

This country's neighbours include Suriname and Brazil. (is this a trick question?!)

Two related posts from Jacob Irwin and a guest blogger at My Personal Finance Journey discuss the perils of e-commerce and sharing financial information online. Jacob dissects an example of a common ‘phishing’ scam, and the red flags that should cause one to be suspicious of an email that seems designed to separate you from your personal information (and eventually, your money!). His guest blogger, Les Roberts, talks about how to stay safe while shopping online, and discusses some of the basic technical aspects of secure online transactions.

Tom Drake at the Canadian Finance Blog has a comprehensive post addressing what he claims is the conventional wisdom regarding life insurance: buy term and invest the difference. He argues that while the strategy has its obvious appeal, it’s highly sensitive to the assumptions used in the term vs. permanent comparison. Well worth a read!

No, it's not an American flag, though their capital is named for one of America's Founding Fathers.

Hank Stern, writing at InsureBlog, notes in the context of recent floods in North Dakota that sometimes taking a risk with your insurance coverage can be justified, but as with the analysis in the previous post, that it all comes down to how robust your assumptions are. Come to think of it, isn’t that the case with just about anything?

This country currently leads the world for longest stretch without an official government. You might say they've been waffling for the past year or so.

Wondering about health insurance exchanges? Dr. Jaan Sidorov (aka the Disease Management Care Blog) took one for the team and dove into the depths of the details of Utah’s already-existing exchange. He notes that setting up an exchange is far more complicated than one might think at first glance, and that it’s unlikely that they will be functional in every state of the union come the 2014 deadline. He also ponders the potential for exchange listing/delisting to be used as a quasi-extra-legal cudgel (my words, not his!) by state insurance regulators seeking additional ways to force insurers into line.

“Oh no they didn’t!” is a common refrain from business owners wondering how that absurd claim could have been paid out by their workers’ compensation carrier. Nancy Germond has a clear and concise explanation of why, “oh yes they did!“, along with an interesting history of how workers’ comp came to be in the first place. Read on at Allbusiness.com.

Do you remember the Dodd-Frank bill? Thought it only applied to big banks and high-falutin’ investment securitization shenanigans? Van Mayhall III has a post at his Insurance Regulatory Law blog reminding us that the new provisions of the law could also affect larger insurance companies and their affiliates in ways that management will want to be aware of well in advance of anything going wrong.

St. Thomas isn't just one of the US Virgin Islands. This equatorial namesake, however, has a "princely" companion.

At Colorado Health Insurance Insider, Louise Norris asks whether eligibility criteria for the newly-established federal high-risk health insurance pools is hampering enrollment. Colorado is an interesting vantage point from which to observe this: the twenty-year-old program “CoverColorado” is very similar to the new federal one. The differences between the two programs’ eligibility rules generate good insight into where the federal program is going wrong in attracting enrollees.

If you asked this country for a date in 1995, you might find the time being pushed up unexpectedly.

Workers Comp Insider Julie Ferguson and I seem to have been on the same wavelength for this blog carnival! I recently wrote a post arguing that the problem of poor price transparency in health care may be an objection to the use of consumer-directed health plans now, but that early adopters will pave the way forward for the rest of us. The chicken-and-egg issue is not all that intractable! Julie Ferguson, on the other hand, has a far superior post addressing the same topic. She points out the immense price differences for the same medical services that exist across state lines and across street intersections alike, and provides links to seven (count’em!) different resources for employers and individuals to use to get the best bang for their medical buck.

***

This brings CoR-135 to a close. Thank you to all of the submitters for their quality posts on risk, and thank you to Hank Stern for his tireless work managing the behind-the-scenes logistics of every edition of this blog carnival. It really is an honour for this callow medical student to be invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table and host the Cavalcade!

The next edition of Cavalcade of Risk will be hosted by Jacob Irwin at My Personal Finance Journey on July 27th.

***

For those of you who tried your hand at the national flags-and-trivia sideshow, the answers are here.

The first one was something of a trick question. It’s France! French Guiana sits atop the northern coast of South America, and is every bit a part of France as Paris or Nice, and as such France has land borders with Brazil and Suriname. Bastille Day: July 14.

It’s not an American flag, but there is a reason it sorta-kinda looks like one. Liberia was established as a place to which to “repatriate” black Americans in the early 19th century, the idea being that they could live a life of greater freedom there than in the antebellum United States. James Monroe was one supporter of this effort: the Liberian capital is Monrovia, after him. Proclamation of independence from the United States: July 26.

Next up: Belgium! It’s been quite a while since they’ve had an official government, and the country is wracked by political tensions between the Flemish and Walloon communities. Oath of the first King of the Belgians: July 21.

St. Thomas in Portuguese is Sao Tome (can’t figure out accents, sorry!), and the flag is that of Sao Tome and Principe, a small island nation located along the Equator in the waters west of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Independence from Portugal: July 12.

Prior to 1995, the Pacific island country of Kiribati was split by the international date line. Makes inter-state time zone differences in the US seem incredibly convenient by comparison, doesn’t it? After kinking the IDL a bit to the east to accommodate the entire country on one side, Kiribati was positioned to be the first country in the world to see each new day. Independence from the UK: also July 12.

The CDHP Chicken and the Price/Quality Data Egg

July 10, 2011 1 comment

There was a post at KevinMD.com not a few days ago that was as interesting for its comments as it was its content. In the post “Consumer-Driven Healthcare Will Only Shift Costs if Implemented Poorly,” the author argued that “consumer-driven” insurance requires consumers to have access to at least a minimum degree of information to guide their decision-making. If employers/insurers shift both the costs and decision-making about healthcare onto their employees/insured, the latter will require either structural “nudges” or other decision-making support to be able to access the care they need and save money.

A brief discussion in the comments brought out what is one of the more common objections I hear to any attempt to move health insurance in the direction of high-deductible catastrophic care policies: “how are patients supposed to find information on quality and price from physicians and hospitals? It’s not there? This can’t possibly work!”

It’s not a trivial objection, but when all is considered I can’t say that I’m convinced by it.

It’s not as though the health care industry hasn’t caught onto the need to devise, assign, and disseminate cost values for different tests and procedures (even if only for internal purposes), even where cost was never previously a consideration. See the recent highly-publicized study in Archives of Surgery finding that merely giving medical staff information on blood test costs reduced spending by lowering utilization.

As more and more patients start asking for real price and quality data, providers will have an incentive to find it and give it to them. With traditional third-party payment, what does it matter to the physician? They get paid what someone else says they get paid. If my classmates are representative of future physicians more generally, most would far rather not even have to think about pricing and bundling their own services if they don’t have to. That won’t change unless there’s a demand for it, and right now the main source of that is patients with consumer-directed plans.

We already have a great deal of beneficial, effective competition on both price and quality in areas of the health care market that are actually markets, and in which people tend to pay out of pocket. Think of the trends of both price and quality of laser eye correction over the last few decades, or cosmetic surgeries that aren’t covered by insurance. These are elective procedures with real risk of misadventure, as with many services provided by physicians and hospitals. The reason that price and quality data are easier to come by for LASIK than for cardiac catheterization is precisely because patients have an interest in knowing. This isn’t to say that the process of developing the data is necessarily quick and easy, but surely this should disprove claims that transparent pricing “could never happen” in health care more generally.

Right now, I’d imagine that the people most likely to sign up for consumer-directed health plans (though obviously there are many exceptions) are those who want to, or at least are comfortable with managing more of their health care spending in exchange for lower premiums and capped out-of-pocket spending. As with any other new product, it is the early adopters who will pave the way forward for other consumers. My prediction is that as a small but growing group of patients and physicians begin to leave the third-party payment model, whether via HSAs or by exiting insurance entirely for some services, the medical industry will get better at providing transparent price and quality information to everyone who asks. CDHPs (and the providers who accept them) today may be like the first cell phones in the 1980s: as the early adopters push for improvements, we’ll see the product evolve into something that can be used more widely in the future.

Yes, there is something of a chicken-and-egg problem right now. But it’s anything but intractable, and certainly won’t be a problem forever.

***

There is a strong argument to be made that transparency and competition on quality goes hand in hand with price competition. John Goodman from the NCPA makes the case here and here, among other places.

Cavalcade of Risk #123: Exam Season

January 25, 2011 7 comments

 

After the initial enthusiasm of the start of medical school fades away, as excitement for the distant future is replaced with the quotidian routine of classes, lab, and review sessions, the realization finally settles in: we’re, um, expected to know all of this?

Most students at medical schools across the country respond to this challenge in the same way, living their lives by a simple, two-word credo that serves to guide their acquisition of knowledge. While I can’t say I show the same fervent devotion to it that many others do, it’s indisputably a part of medical school culture, and is certainly a useful mindset to have when it comes time to study for exams. It is in celebration of that spirit that I present to you today:


Cavalcade of Risk #123:  High-Yield Edition


The Basics


Risks and probabilities are important aspects of clinical medicine. How well are medical schools teaching future doctors to process statistics and other research information from the clinical literature? What does it mean for the quality of future physicians? Jin Packard, a New York Medical College student blogging at Low-Yield Med, draws from his own experiences to argue that the level of training is “nothing shy of a disgrace.” I went one step further and called it a straight-up failure.

Darwin of Darwin’s Money brings us back to the basics, with a clear, concise explanation of how to compare sums of money across time (i.e. “present value” and “future value”). A dollar today is worth more than a dollar in 10 years. Darwin explains the “how” and “why.” Understanding this sort of calculation, and the sorts of assumptions embedded in it, is integral to understanding so much of finance, insurance, and economics. This is a great post to use to learn it, or for a quick refresher.


Health Insurance

Jeff Rose, blogging at Good Financial Cents, features a guest post summarizing the major changes to health-related Flexible Spending Accounts that took effect at the beginning of the New Year. The highlights are the need to get prescriptions for OTC drugs, restrictions on what kinds of stores can accept FSA debit cards, and higher penalties for breaking the rules. All in all, it’s become much more difficult to use FSA money to pay for over-the-counter medications and other health expenses.

Closing out an “ACO ‘orgy week’ of postings” (his words, not mine!) at the Disease Management Care Blog, Dr. Jaan Sidorov takes a look at a recent Medicare demo of these new-fangled, orgiastic Accountable Care Organizations. While, as he says, “ACOs are arguably the only good long term answer to controlling costs, reportedly by making doctors and hospitals play nice with each other and participate in downstream savings,” he wonders why “they, compared to managed care insurers, any less likely to withhold costly care.”

Louise, blogging at Colorado Health Insurance Insider, discusses the proposal by a Colorado legislator to remove the cap on tax-deductible contributions to Health Savings Accounts in the name of sensible health reform. She argues that while this would be a boon to higher-income families who could thus contribute more money to HSAs (and thus shelter more income from taxes), it would do nothing to expand access to health care for those at lower ends of the income scale.

There are consumer protections, and then there are consumer protections. I point out an unusual pair of health policy stories from the past week: on one hand, PPACA supporters warning Republicans not to mess with the new law’s “consumer protections”; on the other hand, healthcare lawyers pointing out that for the law’s vaunted ACOs to have a decent chance of success, many existing “consumer protections” in healthcare may have to be gutted. I ask what the juxtaposition of these two implies about the moral necessity of the healthcare regulatory apparatus as a whole.


Other Insurance

Ryan at CashMoneyLife provides a quick, easy-to-digest rundown on life and viatical settlements, with attention paid to the risks and benefits for both buyers and sellers of life insurance policies in these transaction. These settlements allow life insurance policyholders to “cash out” some fraction of the policy’s face value, and investors to (maybe) make a profit when the policy pays off. Ultimately, while acknowledging that they are not evil and have their roles to play in the insurance marketplace, he concludes that these certainly “aren’t right for the majority of people out there.”

Free Money Finance touts the merits of umbrella insurance policies: they’re relatively inexpensive for the coverage that you get; and that coverage can come in really handy when one lawsuit could be all it takes to exhaust the coverage that your home and auto policies provide. As he points out, “even if your assets are low, your future earnings are probably not,” and both are fair game in a lawsuit.

Hank Stern of InsureBlog fame dissects some finance/insurance “wisdom” posted at an AOL personal finance website. He wasn’t too impressed with their list of “Seven Insurance Policies That Aren’t Worth The Money,” finding that there wasn’t much “profound wisdom to be had.” It’s worth remembering the need to keep your wits about you when reading financial advice on the Internet… or anywhere else, for that matter.

The Digerati Life makes the case that consumers should generally avoid buying the type of insurance that they’re most often offered: extended warranty programs. They’re often costly, and may duplicate coverage provided by your credit card. The proposed alternative is to save the money that would have been spent on these warranties as a personal “warranty fund” of sorts.


Non-insurance risk management

While prognostications about financial markets are dime-a-dozen, some of them still make for interesting reads. This interview with a Canadian asset manager, conducted by Arjun Rudra and posted at InvestingThesis, is one of them. The discussion touches upon prospects for gold, the likelihood that QE2 will succeed, interest rates, emerging markets, and the Canadian dollar (with a bearish outlook on most of these).

Circumcision has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of males contracting HIV from heterosexual sex. The government of Swaziland has begun a mass circumcision campaign in the hopes of reducing HIV incidence. Jason Shafrin, the Healthcare Economist, discusses why such an effort might actually increase HIV incidence: moral hazard.

At some point afterI grow up and become a doctor, I will be sued. When that happens, I want a defence like the one described (with illustrations) by David Williams at the Health Business Blog. A patient died shortly after an operation to replace a stenosed bicusoid aortic valve. The plaintiff argued that the operation was performed improperly, and that the replacement valve chosen was of an incorrect size. The defence argued the opposite, supported by the visual aids that David has posted, and obtained a verdict in their favour.

Julie Ferguson of Workers Comp Insider sends along a wreck of a video (literally) accompanied by advice for truck operators looking to avoid mismatches between the height of their vehicle and the clearance of that rapidly-approaching underpass. Along with the usual advice to plan your route and heed signage about clearance, it’s also recommended to check in advance with local/state departments of transportation for information about low underpasses… a source of information that many people (myself included) might not think of.


Content, NOS

It was a pleasure and an honour to host this edition of the Cavalcade of Risk! Now that you’re done with the best risk-related blog posts of the past fortnight, I’d like to invite you to poke around the rest of The Notwithstanding Blog, home to tales from medical school, health policy analysis, critiques of the academic medical zeitgeist, and the occasional bonus Canadiana. I think you’ll like what you see!

***

The next edition of Cavalcade of Risk will be hosted by Dr. Sidorov on February 9th.

A bad feeling

January 23, 2011 5 comments

According to famed bioethicist Leon Kass, we should listen to “the wisdom of repugnance.

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.

“The kids don’t know how to read a case-control”

January 23, 2011 2 comments
The re-drawn chart comparing the various gradi...

Image via Wikipedia

In a world where everybody wants more of their pet cause in the medical school curriculum, it’s always enjoyable to find such a cause that actually merits support.

Jin Packard, blogging at Low-Yield Medical, makes the case that medical school needs to give statistics and epidemiology the respect they deserve, using his own training as an example of how not to do it.

I, for one, view statistical fluency as a basic life skill — though given my background in economics (with all the exposure to stats and econometrics it entails) I would be expected to say that. If you disagree with me as far as physicians are concerned, go read Jin’s piece… it’ll set you straight.

Where I seem to part ways with him, however, is on the advisability of trying to get all of this material in during medical school. When I think of how much I learned in two semester as an undergraduate (and how much more I taught myself afterwards), it seems like a whole lot for a medical school course. Given that many medical schools are shortening the amount of time spent in the classroom from the traditional 2 years to 1.5 (or even 1, in some cases!), when do you teach it?

Personally, I would change the pre-med requirements so that “two semesters of math” becomes “two semesters of statistics.” Advanced calculus is nice to know, but I have yet to use it once. Statistics, on the other hand, are all around us. If students have a good foundation upon entry, it makes the task of the med school that much more achievable, and gives them that many fewer excuses for failure.

And let’s be honest, failure is what we have right now.

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Title taken from Sam Roberts‘s ever-so-catchy song “Them Kids.” [second link will stream the song]

As I’ve blogged before, “the kids also don’t know how to make payroll.

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