Monday, May 2, 2016

Borderline Personality Disorder and Public Health Ethics

An article in the May issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry - "The Emergence of a Generalist Model to Meet Public Health Needs for Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder" - shows how experts can move from a specialty niche to public health relevance. This isn't just a clinical act. It's also ethics in action!

Borderline Personality Disorder is a relatively common condition, said to affect 1%-2% of the population and to represent 15%-20% of psychiatric hospital admissions and 6% of primary care visits. People with the condition evince symptoms like: vulnerability to feeling abandoned; unstable relationships that oscillate between idealization and disenchantment; destructive impulsiveness; self-harm; difficulties controlling anger; transient psychotic episodes; and more. The condition takes a high toll on individuals, those involved with them, and the health professionals who try to help them.

In the past 25-30 years, three evidence-based forms of treatment have emerged:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy. DBT involves a combination of weekly individual and group therapy that emphasizes understanding one's vulnerabilities and reaction patterns, combined with learning new self-management skills. 
  • Mentalization-based treatment. This treatment is a variant of psychodynamic psychotherapy that focuses on better understanding of mental states in oneself and others, based on the hypothesis that patients with borderline personality disorder interpret and react to others in terms of their own fantasies, and that more realistic understanding will decrease their desperate emotional over-reactivity. Like DBT, mentalization-based therapy typically involves weekly individual and group sessions.
  • Transference-focused psychotherapy. For this approach, twice weekly individual sessions are recommended. The treatment makes maximum use of the patient's reactions to the therapist as an avenue into modifying the internal structures that lead to the chaotic life pattern.
All three approaches can legitimately claim to have been validated. But all three require training and skill beyond the level of most mental health clinicians. Nine years ago Glen Gabbard, perhaps the leading educator in psychiatry, asked "Do all roads lead to Rome?" and suggested that the three techniques may reflect different ways of delivering common healing processes. In the just-published article that I cited above, John Gunderson, a leading researcher on BPD, builds on Gabbard's suggestion and offers a common-sense generalist model that emphasizes educating the patient about the condition, focusing on life outside of the office more than on the interaction between patient and therapist, integrating medication management, and selectively involving family and significant others.

I'm writing about this clinical issue in a venue devoted to health system ethics because the move from a specialist orientation to generalism embodies admirable public health ethics. Our U.S. health system tilts towards a specialist for every organ and condition. At its best, this approach cultivates deep clinical skills. But it also disarticulates the care of individuals into unrelated segments and mirrors the inequity of our wider society by providing a lot for the few and much less for the many.

When I did my residency in the 1960s, psychoanalytic training was regarded as the pinnacle of professional development. I valued the deep intellectual rigor of psychoanalysis, but couldn't see limiting my practice to a relatively small number of patients who would be seen 3-5 times per week, and who, by practical necessity, would have to be relatively affluent. 

Gunderson's article points in the direction I'd mapped out for myself at the start of my career. U.S. health care needs to strengthen its generalist orientation at the level of primary care and within specialties. Moving towards health insurance for all is the first step in correcting the moral failings of our health system. But the ultimate challenge is improving our commitment and capacity to provide excellent cost-effective care for the entire population. Gunderson's work illustrates what every segment of medicine needs to do.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Robber Baron Capitalism victimizes Mother Theresa

Yesterday the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a feel-good hearing at which the Senators excoriated Michael Pearson, the soon-to-be ex-CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, for rapacious drug pricing, and hedge fund manager William Ackman for making Valeant a darling of the Wall Street world.

It's a valuable truth about organizational life that every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it actually produces. The two articles cited in the previous paragraph and a third about "The Complex Math Behind Spiraling Prescription Drug Prices" provide insight about how the current U.S. system inevitably produces stratospheric drug prices. Here's how it works:

  1. The first step involves rewarding CEOs lavishly for short-term profits. It's important not to look too deeply into how the profits are made, as long as the method is - or appears to be - legal. My my previous post  about Michael Pearson's compensation shows how this first step towards moral corruption can best be carried out.
  2. One variant of step two involves identifying a valuable old drug that is priced affordably. Make sure it has no competitors. Then, buy it and jack up the price by hundreds of percents. That's the route Michael Pearson at Valeant and Martin Shkreli at Turing Pharmaceuticals took.
  3. As an alternative, identify a serious medical condition for which there is no effective treatment. Develop a new, better approach. This is the path of discovery and developing genuine new value. Up to the the point of setting a price, this step is morally admirable.
  4. Recognizing that (a) we control a vital component for human health, and (b) health organizations are committed to human health, (c) set a stratospheric price, since (d) we have the health system over a barrel. 
  5. If whoever is purchasing our stratospherically-priced drug protests, accuse them of (a) rationing care, (b) stifling innovation, or best (c) both.
This is how the fine-tuned medical-industrial complex facilitates runaway drug costs. Historically, providers have been governed by Mother Theresa's ethics - do what is needed for human health no matter what it costs. The Michael Pearsons and Martin Shkrelis may be acting within the law, but they're not acting within the ethics of care. Unlike Pearson and Shkreli, who simply recycle established products at new prices, pharmaceutical companies that develop treatments that create new possibilities for human healing are participating in the health care calling. But when they charge astronomical prices, they're joining with the Pearsons and Shkrelis in robber baron conduct.

Hard bargaining helps, but it isn't likely to be enough to lead to fair pricing. My guess is that some form of regulation or other change in law is likely to be required. How to do it is beyond my pay grade. But happily, we in Massachusetts elected Elizabeth Warren as Senator, and consumer protection is her specialty. I'm going to send this post to her office with a simple message: PLEASE HELP!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bringing the Best of Religion into Medicine

Yesterday I went to the funeral of my older daughter-in-law's mother. She was a much-loved person who was very active in her church. The beautiful Episcopal ceremony evoked her spirit with love and humor. The minister conducted the service in a spirit of inclusiveness and solidarity. The words from John 14:2 - "In my Father's house are many mansions" - were interpreted as reflecting love of all humanity, not as a promise to believers alone.

For me the service brought out what is best in religion. Three years ago I wrote that all liberal (i.e., inclusive) religions are comparably true and good and all fundamentalist (i.e., exclusive) religions are comparably false and bad. I continue to hold that view.

Even though I'm thoroughly in the secular humanist fold, over the years of medical practice I often found that religious language felt truer to the aims of clinical care than purely secular modes of expression. Here are four examples:

"Omniscient being." In all areas of medicine we often bump up against uncertainty. At times that my patient and I wished we knew what to do or what to expect, I might say something like "if we had access to an omniscient being, we wouldn't have to wonder about XYZ..." The concept of a god evoked our wish for the assistance that a benevolent god would give us, and at the same time, acknowledged our limitations.

"Blessing." Historically, to be "blessed" meant having god's favor. Our perfunctory"God Bless You" when someone sneezes goes back to pre-antibiotic days when sneezing might presage pneumonia and pneumonia could mean a rapid death. Even though I don't believe in a god who might intervene, comments like "let's hope that you will be blessed with better health" felt like a stronger expression of hope and possibility than they would with purely secular phraseology.

"Prayer." Many years ago, a patient of mine who conducted himself courageously despite significant impairment from chronic schizophrenia, ended an appointment by asking me to remember him in my prayers. Without thought or hesitation, I said I would. I took my patient to be requesting that I care about him deeply and feel for him  what I've written about as "the right kind of love between doctors and patients." Since I did feel that way about him I felt I was speaking truth in committing myself to remembering him in my prayers.

"Calling." In its original meaning, a "calling" came from god in the literal form of god's voice. The clinicians I respect most among physicians, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals ("profession" is another term that comes from a religious context) all think of health care as a "calling." Many religious clinicians understand the calling to health care as a call from god - literally, to do "god's work." But when I've used the concept of "calling" with first year medical students in the ethics class, it gets a mixed reception. For some it rings true. They feel "called" to a sacred profession, whether they're believers or not. But others have chided me for being too moralistic. For them, medicine is a "job." I don't try to talk them out of this view, but I do suggest that when they're with patients at the bedside, the "job" may be transformed into a "calling."

When my mother experienced the cerebral hemorrhage from which she died a few days later, the ambulance took her to a Catholic hospital. I was impressed and comforted by the spiritual wisdom of the care she and her small family (me and my father) received, especially from the nurses. And when I visited the Swami Vivekananda Hospital in Saragur, India, in 2009, I learned that twice a week they conducted a non-denominational prayer service for patients and staff. Religious language and "liberal" religious practice make superb partners for the enterprise of health care!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Euthanasia and the Slippery Slope

Some of the arguments for and against what is now being called "Physician Assisted Death" (PAD)  rest on core ethical beliefs and are intractable. But the "slippery slope" argument that legalizing PAD in limited and arguably ethically acceptable circumstances, as with the Oregon "Death with Dignity Act," will inevitably lead to ethically unacceptable actions, is testable.

PAD became legal in Oregon in 1997. In the intervening 19 years there has been no significant public pressure to legalize PAD for persons who are not terminally ill, and no evidence suggesting that PAD is victimizing vulnerable populations such as the poor, ethnic minorities, or frail elderly. PAD is a relatively infrequent event, accounting for 0.4% of deaths in 2015. Further, PAD has not undermined good end-of-life-care, another slippery slope fear. In actual fact, Oregon is among the national leaders in providing good palliative and hospice care.

But although Oregon proves that the slippery slope argument against laws modeled on the Death with Dignity Act is invalid, reports from Belgium and the Netherlands are worrisome. In those countries PAD and active euthanasia occur at 10 times the rate in Oregon. What I find most disturbing is the way Belgium and the Netherlands have extended the practice beyond the terminally ill to include people described as "tired of living" and to others suffering from otherwise non-terminal psychiatric ailments.

If you're interested in PAD and the potential validity of the slippery slope concern, please read Rachel Aviv's brilliant New Yorker article from last year - "The Death Treatment," in which she tells the story of Godelieva De Troyer:

Godelieva De Troyer

At 64, De Troyer had recently been abandoned by a boyfriend and was feeling distant from her son. She sought out Dr. Wim Distelmans, an oncologist and professor of palliative medicine (!). Distelmans, who is apparently revered in Belgium for his support for euthanasia, cuts a handsome and charismatic figure:

Wim Distelmans

De Troyer had lived a roller coaster life. Her emotional states ranged from ebullience when her relationships were fulfilling to painful despair when her important attachments were disrupted. But given the clear history of relatedness during her adult life, I would wager that virtually all experienced psychiatrists in the U.S. would have seen De Troyer's wish for death when she met with Distelmans as a transient symptom, not an autonomous choice.

Rachel Aviv was able to interview Distelmans. Here's a crucial paragraph from her article:
Distelmans told me that he had no doubts about the way he handled Godelieva’s case. He explained that she was “a very nice person, a very warm person,” and that she had “wanted to do one decent thing in her life, and that is to die in a decent way, because the rest of her life was such a horrible mess.” When I asked if he worried about transference—perhaps she had idolized him or depended too much on his opinion—he laughed and said, “I’ve never met a patient who is willing to die to please someone else.”
I'd make the further wager that most experienced therapists in the U.S. would share Aviv's speculation that a "transference" was at work. And Distelmans's statement that no one is willing to die to please someone else is sheer nonsense. If we needed more proof than "psychological autopsies" conducted after suicides provide, just think of the suicide bombers who blow themselves up with heroic martyrdom as one of their motives.

Washington (2009), Vermont (2009) and California (2016), the three additional states that have passed "Death with Dignity" laws, all follow Oregon by limiting the procedure to patients with terminal conditions from which they are expected to die within 6 months. The slippery slope argument holds no water against that approach. But advocates for similar laws in other states should recognize that there appear to be real slippery slopes across the Atlantic, and must explain clearly the difference between Belgium and the Netherlands and what Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California have done.

(I've never met Rachel Aviv, but I've written about her superb work here and here.) 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

More Details on Disgraceful Pharmaceutical Practices

Two days ago I wrote about the dual agency problem pharmaceutical executives face: "They're clearly crucial participants in  the sacred calling of health care. At the same time, they're embedded in a highly competitive industry with strong profit demands. Pharmaceutical executives work in the jaws of a severe dual agency challenge: sacred calling vs the invisible hand of the market."

Today's New York Times offered a telling detail on how the jaws of money led Valeant Pharmaceuticals directly to disgraceful - though legal - "leadership" in the health care sector.

Valeant's legal but disgraceful strategy was to achieve monopoly power by buying rights to old drugs and then raising prices to stratospheric heights. I call this disgraceful because human health is not a commodity to be traded and sold. Valeant added "value" (money) for shareholders and staff, but subtracted value from the domain of human health - directly, via reducing access to needed drugs, and indirectly, by contributing to demoralization within and about health care through its sordid practices.

Here's the crucial detail. The CEO would only receive a bonus if the stock price rose by a specified amount each year, and the shares he was awarded would only vest if the stock rose by 15% in three consecutive years. Last year his salary was reduced to zero, making him totally dependent on stock price. These are legal incentives from the perspective of finance, but they're disgraceful incentives from the perspective of improving human health.

On July 31, 2015, Valeant's stock sold for $257.53. At 9:58 AM today it was selling for $28.89. I hope the 89% drop will convey to investors that financial performance should not be the key criterion for evaluating performance in the health sector.

The reason the Valeant story leads me to rant so vociferously is that for health care professionals pharmaceutical companies are partners in delivering health care. When a drug allows us to help a patient in a meaningful way, we're grateful to the pharmaceutical company. It's analogous to our relationship with consultants who help our patients achieve better outcomes.

The problem isn't that Valeant made an honest mistake. We all do that. It's that they were playing by rules that don't belong in health care. Disgraceful rules!

[See here for a previous post on Valeant. For a post on how I felt personally betrayed by a scandal involving the drug Abilify, see here. And for a post about Valeant in today's Pharmalot blog, see here.]

I believe I have reasonable understanding of all the benefits a market economy can provide. I'm writing on one right now. But there's a widespread feeling among clinicians and patients in health care that resonates with this cartoon:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Who Should be Seen as a "Healthcare Executive" and Why Does it Matter?

The American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) has as its vision "To be the premier professional society for healthcare executives dedicated to improving healthcare delivery." ACHE's excellent 2015 statement - Creating an Ethical Culture Within the Healthcare Organization - rests on an assertion I wholeheartedly support: namely, that "all healthcare executives have a professional obligation to create an ethical culture." (I added the emphasis)

If you agree with the ACHE assertion, and I'm prepared to go to the mat for it, the first question is: what counts as a "healthcare executive"? How wide is the scope of the term?

Clearly, executives at hospitals, medical groups, and other organizations that deal directly with patients carry major moral responsibilities. After all, health care is crucial for realizing all three of the "unalienable rights" put forward in the Declaration of Independence: life (sometimes health care saves our lives), liberty (we can't exercise our freedom without health), and pursuit of happiness (we can be happy without health, but it's more difficult, and severe enough pain makes it impossible).

ACHE deliberately leaves the scope of the term vague. It defines itself an an organization for "healthcare executives who lead hospitals, healthcare systems and other healthcare organizations." From my experience as a physician, administrator, and patient, I'd cast a wide net for defining "other healthcare organizations" and setting ethical expectations for them.

In the complex U.S. health system direct care organizations aren't the only important moral agents. Health plans and pharmaceutical companies are perhaps the two most important examples of indirect moral agents.

Over the years I've tried to encourage health plans to create ethics programs the way Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where I have directed the ethics program for sixteen years, has done. I've had zero success. This doesn't mean that other health plans are unethical, but it does suggest that ethical performance is not seen as something that requires the kind of concerted leadership the ACHE statement on responsibility for creating an ethical culture calls for. (For a previous post about my quixotic efforts, see here.)

Executives in the pharmaceutical industry face especially difficult challenges in relation to the kinds of expectations the ACHE standards articulate. They're clearly crucial participants in  the sacred calling of health care. At the same time, they're embedded in a highly competitive industry with strong profit demands. Pharmaceutical executives work in the jaws of a severe dual agency challenge: sacred calling vs the invisible hand of the market.

More than forty years ago, Arnold Relman warned of the potentially disruptive moral impact of what he called "The New Medical-Industrial Complex." Since his prescient warning there have been efforts to establish a shared moral code for all participants in the world of health care. A distinguished U.S. and U.K. group articulated the "Tavistock Principles," but these, alas, seem to have been dead on arrival, and have not been heard from for fifteen years. And for a number of years the American Medical Association sponsored an "Ethical Force" program that sought to establish measurable ethical standards for the major players in the health sector. I had the privilege of being on the advisory panel on health benefits determination. The project produced some excellent materials and a book, but as with the Tavistock principles, the effort was relatively short-lived.

When I mulled over how to end this post I realized that I don't have a tidy upbeat ending. The image that came to mind was of Sisyphus, eternally pushing a rock up the hill. It seems to me that Arnold Relman's call to action points to an ongoing task captured in this cartoon:

I'll do more rock pushing in future posts!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Insurance Coverage for Telemedicine

Last week the Harvard Pilgrim Ethics Advisory Group (EAG) devoted its quarterly meeting to the topic of "Developing a Framework of Ethics for Telemedicine." I chair the group and write a consultation report based on the discussion. Four of the group's recommendations are relevant for all health insurers and health plans, so I'm presenting them here:

  1.  Nationally, telemedicine is evolving rapidly in a somewhat helter-skelter manner. The EAG recommended that insurers should focus coverage on areas in which telemedicine can minister to significant health needs. Fitbit and other health trackers are popular with consumers but do not reflect the kind of “need” that health insurance should cover. In contrast, services for patients who cannot access important care because of geography or limited mobility and services that maintain or improve quality while reducing costs provide real value.
  2.  Patients and physicians both see continuity of care as a crucial health care value. But patients also value access and convenience, which have driven the uptake of telemedicine. Ideally, insurers will find ways to reconcile these potentially conflicting values, as by requiring telemedicine providers to foster communication with the patient’s primary care physician if the patient gives permission. The group imagined technological “fixes” that would encourage patients to be active participants in establishing continuity of care, as by having the telemedicine provider’s note go to the patient, to be shared with whomever the patient wishes to inform. 
  3.  One of the questions the EAG had been asked was: "Should Harvard Pilgrim be a leader in providing telemedicine coverage or wait for well established quality information and support from the relevant professional organizations prior to offering access?" The group saw the question as too either/or. Telemedicine is at once (a) a promising innovation that is (b) energized by societal trends in use of technology in other sectors of life, but (c) uncertain in its impact on cost and quality of care. It encouraged Harvard Pilgrim to be active in the area of telemedicine, but do so in a try it/evaluate it/fix it/or drop it manner, in order to learn from experience and contribute to knowledge about the emerging trend.
  4.   A Google search for "telemedicine providers" brings up a dizzying array of links. There is a lot of money to be made, and the marketplace is in a feeding frenzy. Given the certainty that consumers will be exposed to services ranging from high quality/high value enterprises to bottom feeders hoping to take the money and run, the EAG recommended that insurers only cover services from vendors who share and apply the same values with regard to improving quality, reducing overall costs, and supporting continuity of care. This revenue prediction table illustrates why the marketplace offers patients both promise and risk: 


To learn more about the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care ethics program, see previous blog posts here and here, and this article in Health Affairs