Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Industry, Medicine and Medical Ethics

This morning I co-chaired a meeting of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans (MAHP) Ethics Forum that used the Massachusetts Gift Ban law as an entry point for discussing the relationship between the medical products industry and the medical profession.

Marcia Hams, program director of the Community Catalyst Prescription Access and Quality Program and Tom Stossel, director of translational medicine at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, kicked off the discussion. Many pharmaceutical companies are affiliate members of MAHP, so participants included pharmaceutical folks as well as health plan medical staff.

What struck me most about the excellent discussion is how the absence of an overall budget for health care has tilted public discourse in a polarized black and white direction. Marcia Hams made a strong, thoughtful advocacy argument that pharmaceutical marketing activities contribute to increased costs and negative impacts on quality. Tom Stossel made a strong, thoughtful advocacy argument that pharmaceutical marketing activities contribute to decreased overall costs and quality improvements.

If we had an overall budget for our health system, or real budgets for components of the system, we'd be having a different set of discussions. Instead of arguing about whether industry influence on medical practice and health care costs is good or bad (it's both), we'd be discussing questions like whether a particular intervention created enough value to justify its use, and how its cost-effectiveness measured up against alternatives.

Many in the policy community argue that the U.S. population is unwilling to recognize and accept limits in health care. In my view, the scattered structure of our health system - most notably, the absence of overall budgets - has made it difficult for us to consider relative value, trade offs, and opportunity costs. By now we're habituated to not thinking about these questions, which makes us progressively immature as a body politic and vulnerable to nonsense like "death panels" and fear that the Affordable Care Act will lead to a government mandate that we all eat broccoli!

(This has been the longest time without a post since I started the blog almost five years ago. I've been unusually busy with teaching activities and a number of projects. It's good to be back!)

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