Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nonprofit Regional Health Plans

As the US health system moves towards the 2014 launching of health exchanges and other components of Obamacare, regional nonprofit health plans are poised to take a distinctively important role.

An article in today's New York Times described the steps Florida Blue, which covers 4 million Floridians - 30 percent of the Florida insurance market - is taking. The  proposal for a "public option" like Medicare for all that would compete with private insurers crashed and burned in the health reform process, but regional nonprofits like Florida Blue are carrying out the function that was envisioned for the public option. Nonprofits can't function without making a margin beyond their expenses, but their structure allows them to be more mission-driven and locally connected than investor-owned plans.

For much of my clinical career I practiced at the nonprofit Harvard Community Health Plan (HCHP) HMO. My late father, who lived in Florida, know how much I respected HCHP, and asked me if he should join an HMO. At that time none of his choices were nonprofits, and I'd read about various scandals in the Florida market. If he'd been living in Massachusetts I would have encouraged him to join HCHP where I and my family got our care, but I advised him against the HMO route in Florida.

Medical care is ultimately local. It works best when clinicians and their organizations are part of the local community. This passage in the article stood out for me:
“Florida Blue has the same problems everyone else has,” said Dr. Michael A. Wasylik, an orthopedic surgeon in Tampa who works with insurers through the Florida Medical Association, but “they have a better trust relationship with doctors.” The local representatives are better able to address doctors’ concerns, he said.
Health reform won't get anywhere without enthusiastic participation from the clinical community. Insurers can facilitate reform, but they can't make it happen. Engagement with the local community, and above all the kind of trust that Dr. Wasylik refers to, are key. If the national for-profit giants can compete successfully with regional nonprofits like Florida Blue, more power to them. But if the narrow margins and need for highly collaborative relationships with the clinical community make Obamacare an undesirable business opportunity, regional nonprofits like Florida Blue will flourish.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ignoring Families Can be Fatal

Yesterday in Heathrow Airport on my way home from Singapore I wrote a post about how US medical ethics ignores families and overemphasizes individual "autonomy." When I got home I read a painful story in the New York Times that confirmed the potential harm from the way ethics and law lead clinicians to treat individuals as isolated units: "Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions: Addict's Parents Couldn't Halt Flow of Attention Deficit Drug.

Richard Fee, an intelligent, popular student who hoped to go to medical school, became addicted to stimulants in college. He faked symptoms of ADHD and received increasing doses of stimulants over a two year period. He ultimately became psychotic, and when the stimulants were stopped, became depressed (not unusual during stimulant withdrawal) and hung himself. The central points of the story are (1) how psychiatry has degenerated into brief "med checks" in which prescriptions are written without adequate thought about what's really going on and (2) how the pharmaceutical industry has succeeded in pushing medication use way beyond what good health and good practice call for.

But having just come from a conference on  "The Ethics of Family Involvement in Healthcare," I was transfixed by what happened when Richard's father, who was terrified about his son's deterioration, and who understood the addiction problem, tried to talk with Richard's psychiatrist: 
In late December, Mr. Fee drove to Dominion Psychiatric and asked to see Dr. Ellison, who explained that federal privacy laws forbade any discussion of an adult patient, even with the patient’s father. Mr. Fee said he had tried unsuccessfully to detail Richard’s bizarre behavior, assuming that Richard had not shared such details with his doctor.


“I can’t talk to you,” Mr. Fee recalled Dr. Ellison telling him. “I did this one time with another family, sat down and talked with them, and I ended up getting sued. I can’t talk with you unless your son comes with you.”

Mr. Fee said he had turned to leave but distinctly recalls warning Dr. Ellison, “You keep giving Adderall to my son, you’re going to kill him.”
I heard about situations like this again and again during my years of psychiatric practice. Whereas in Singapore respect for the family can lead to ignoring the patient, in the US respect for the individual can lead to grotesque stonewalling of the family. Dr. Ellison was not wrong that privacy laws emphasize the individual's right to privacy and to control access to information about him, but skillful clinicians learn how to (a) recognize the law but (b) do what's right for the patient. Law precluded Dr. Ellison from giving information to Richard's father, but it did not preclude listening to his father, explaining why he would not give out information without Richard's permission, thanking the father for his concern, and creating an opportunity for further connection.

Years ago I had a patient who (a) was in a suicidal crisis, (b) hated the hospital and had not benefitted from previous admissions, and (c) had responsible, caring friends who (d) were able to provide support and (e) would want to do so. My patient and I had a version of the following dialogue:
Patient: I won't go to the hospital!
Me: I don't want you in the hospital, but we have to keep you safe, and we'll need help from XYZ.
Patient: You can't talk with them.
Me: Since I know how much you hate the hospital and believe we can get you better without it, I'm going to talk with XYZ, but I want to do it with your permission.
Patient: You can't talk with XYZ - what about privacy and my rights?
Me: Your most important right is to be alive until  your time comes. I'd like to have your permission to talk with XYZ, but I'm going to do it one way or the other...
My  patient ultimately grudging agreed, XYZ came to the office, and we got through the crisis. But I'd meant what I'd said - if my patient had not given me permission I would have contacted XYZ. It made no sense for law to give me the power to impose involuntary hospital commitment but to forbid me from getting help from caring and competent friends without permission.

As Dr. Johnson taught us, the law can be an ass. US laws surrounding informational privacy are well-intended, but they're too simple-minded to apply to all human situations. Richard Fee might be alive if the medical establishment had not treated him as an isolated atom suffering from a deficiency of stimulant medication.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Western Bioethics Ignores the Family

At the end of my stay in Singapore I participated in a conference on "The Ethics of Family Involvement in Healthcare," sponsored by an international research consortium I'd not encountered before but whose mission I was totally in sync with:
Despite many attempts to broaden its ethical gaze beyond the patient-centered focus of traditional medical ethics, bioethics remains strongly individualistic. The patient is treated as a self-interested individual unencumbered by personal relationships, and the principle of self-determination is dominant. However, many areas of biomedicine call for a more relational perspective. This international collaborative project on family ethics is about just that.
In my clinical work I've been very attentive to the family context of my patients, but in my work on ethics it's the neglect of the individual's responsibilities as part of a society that I've attended to. I've argued ad infinitum that medical ethics - especially in the US - has attended too exclusively to the needs and interests of the "numerator" (the individual) without attending to the needs and interests of the "denominator" (the society the individual is part of). In the US that focus has led to wildly excessive health expenditures and neglect of public health and other social goods.

In 1989, during my first visit to India, I visited the psychiatry department at Banaras Hindu University. A resident who was Indian by birth but who'd lived in the US through his teen age years and seemed very American was showing me around. On a hospital ward I saw an older woman combing the hair of young adult patient. I asked about what I interpreted as remarkable nursing care. The resident explained that this was her mother, and that patients were accompanied in the hospital by family members. I then asked a very American question - weren't the patients worried about privacy and confidentiality? The resident, despite having grown up in the US, simply didn't understand my question. He explained that their worry was about not being extruded from the family.

My question showed that I'd been more influenced  than I'd realized by the tendency in US psychiatry to blame the family for the patient's problems. When I trained as a resident (1965 - 1968) and did a fellowship at the Family Studies Unit at the National Institute of Health (1968 - 1970), the concept of the "
schizophrenogenic mother" was still widely accepted. When I was responsible for a hospital unit at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (1970 - 1973), I was concerned that many staff members had a hostile view towards families, and often made them feel unwelcome, and I did teaching sessions about the important role of families as caretakers. But at Banaras Hindu University my reaction focused on fear of not having privacy, not fear losing family ties.

I believe the tendency of US medical ethics to see the individual as an atom of self-interest and threatened rights comes from two main sources - (a) the anti-family tilt of American culture in the last half of the 20th century and (b) an effort to give the patient more authority and power in the patient/physician relationship. This latter aim has led to a beneficial and overdue rebalancing of the interaction between patient and physician elegantly conceptualized in the concept of "shared decision making," but US medical ethics needs to incorporate more recognition of the role of "families of origin" and "families of choice" in the ethical equation.

There's no way to make clinical ethics tidy. Sometimes families are intrusive, hurtful, and even profoundly destructive. Somtimes they are nurturing and crucial for an individual's well being. And, as most of us have experienced, family involvement is typically a blend of delight and exasperation. Sorting out the situation is what makes the health professions so challenging, so important, and so much fun!