Tag Archives: prevention

Empathy and Prevention – a reply to Paul Bloom

In the May 20, 2013 issue of the New Yorker Paul Bloom argues convincingly that policy should include more rational argument and less empathy. Empathy leads us to spend a million dollars to get a single little girl out of a well, and yet have to scrap over pennies for building a fence that keeps the girl out of the well in the first place. Empathy leads us to commit an outsized amount of research funds to a deadly disease that affects only a few people, while ignoring or underfunding research that would prevent diseases in the first place. Empathy leads us to worry about the effects of mitigation of global warming because of anecdotes about people who might be put out of business with greater regulatory efforts to reduce carbon emissions, while not being able to envision and prevent the effects on future generations (now a cliche).

Bloom is right about all of this. But he is wrong about his conclusion. He writes (his final paragraph):

Such are the paradoxes of empathy. The power of this faculty has something to do with its ability to bring our moral concern into a laser pointer of focussed attention. If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.

To state that “empathy will have to yield to reason” is to think only rationally. Yet policy is made because of both reason and anecdote, analysis and empathy. Empathy is a form of expression of moral accounts. And values are critical to policy decision-making. To claim that empathy has to yield to reason is to contradict how we think, deliberate, and act. Instead of his weak conclusion that is so contradictory, we need to take empathy into account during policy-making. How might we do this?

First, by finding our own anecdotes. We need to find human images and stories related to prevention issues that invoke empathic responses. We need to use “Mad Men” tactics to persuade policy-makers of the value of preventive actions not just with cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, but also with narrative and emotion-evoking explanations. In the policy world we generally have been bereft of such approaches. We even can be antagonistic to them; we believe that the facts and science will do our arguments for us. But as Bloom so poignantly shows us, facts don’t hold a candle to the little girl in the well.

Second, by acknowledging the need to include empathy in our studies – how do our reactions to information and circumstances influence our willingness to be influential with policy analysis and decision-making? After all, policy analysis is just that – taking data of various sorts and trying to figure out the impact of various actions to fix a problem. Two analysts can look at the same set of data and arrive at different conclusions and courses of action because values and empathic responses are so critical to the analytic method. Our greater or lesser sense of the effects and empathic responses to those effects may strongly color our conclusions and action recommendations.

So while Bloom analyzes the problem correctly, he concludes with the wrong action statement. Empathy doesn’t have to yield to reason, analysis has to take both empathy and reason (among many other things) into account on an equal footing. And more importantly how we sell our recommended courses of action needs to play on the empathic response he so wisely discusses in his article.

BTW, often the concepts of empathy and compassion are confused. Bloom defines empathy correctly in his article, but then sometimes uses it as if it were compassion, which incorporates a component of compulsion to action. If the reader is interested in a more definitive discussion of the “spectrum of beneficence” and how empathy plays in the clinical encounter model, take a look at my 2009 article, “Kindness, not Compassion, in Health Care,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 18, 287–299 DOI: 10.1017/S0963180109090458.

One Health: the Balance between Animal and Human Health

Animals and humans interact in many more ways than we think about in domestic suburbia.  Sure, we know that animal farmers are constantly in contact with their produce, and we are happy to pet our domestic cats and dogs.  Sure we recognize that some wild animals get rabies or, here in the desert of New Mexico, occasionally someone comes down with plague because of flea bites from infected indigenous rodents (our first case of this year was just last week).  And we’ve all heard of bird flu.

Yet there are many more ways that animals and humans interact that can compromise the health of individuals or populations.  In an excellent summary article, “Links among Human Health, Animal Health, and Ecosystem Health” Peter Rabinowitz and Lisa Conti from the Yale School of Medicine discuss how small-scale animal agriculture, human migration patterns and travel, animal worker practices, housing and land use development, changes in indigenous wildlife species, toxic hazards like the mercury poisoning in Minimata, Japan, and climate change impact animal and human health synergistically.

In 2007 the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) Policy Committee, of which I was a member and former Chair, passed a resolution introduced by the late Ron Davis urging the American Medical Association to “support an initiative designed to promote collaboration between human and veterinary medicine…encourage joint efforts in clinical care through the assessment, treatment, and prevention of cross-species disease transmission…AMA support cross-species disease surveillance and control efforts in public health…support joint efforts in the development and evaluation of new diagnostic methods, medicines, and vaccines for the prevention and control of diseases across species…[and] engage in a dialogue with the American Veterinary Medical Association to discuss strategies for enhancing collaboration between the medical and veterinary medical professions in medical education, clinical care, public health, and biomedical research.”

The AMA passed this resolution and has been a leader in encouraging the consideration of these issues.  The American College of Preventive Medicine has recently participated in a One Health capitol hill briefing and renewed its endorsement of the One Health initiative.  However, the greatest push to understand and deal with animal-human medical interactions has come from the veterinary community.  The medical community has been relatively quiescent on the issue unless an epidemic occurs.  When one looks at the One Health Commission there are only two MD individual members of the Board of Directors, and only one MD on the Council of Advisers.  (There are twelve on the honorary advisory board of the One Health Initiative.)

Who are the MD leaders concerned about this issue?  Mostly they are epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, or ag-related occupational medicine specialists.  Two out of three of these specialists are under the medical specialty of preventive medicine.  There aren’t very many of us trained in preventive medicine.  The Institute of Medicine in 2007 estimated there are about 10,000 in the US and that we’d need another 10,000 over the next few years.  To quote from a report from ACPM:

  • Between 1999 and 2006, the number of residents enrolled in preventive medicine training programs declined nearly 20%, and in 2007-08 less than half of the approved number of residency positions were filled.
  • The number of preventive medicine residency programs decreased from 90 in 1999 to 71 in 2008-2009.

These trends have not abated.  The demand for such residencies has not decreased – it has always been high according to preventive medicine residency directors.  The problem is funding – preventive medicine is the one specialty not consistently mostly supported by the federal government.  Hence for those residency programs in existence, most can only find funding to fill half of their slots (and many approved residencies’ doors aren’t even open).

For human medicine to be fully engaged in the One Health initiative we need more human medicine physicians to be engaged in preventive medicine, which means more federal funding for residencies.  But as with prevention in general, western society tends to provide less than what is needed in the balance with treatment.


Another review of Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the Right Balance?

Bhaven Sampat has written a review of our text in Global Public Health 8(2):236-9, 2013. His summary judgment is:

Having expressed some minor complaints, I emphasise that I like the book and recommend it. I have long been interested in teaching a course on cost-effectiveness analysis that goes beyond technique and engages some of the political and ethical issues behind the scenes. This volume would be a good introduction to these themes in the context of prevention and treatment. The first three chapters would also provide a very good short introduction to the prevention versus treatment debates for policymakers and others interested in a general overview of these issues.

The first three chapters include the introduction (Faust and Menzel), economics (Altarum Institute – Miller, Roehrig, Hughes-Cromwick, and Turner), and cost-savings/effectiveness (Russell). We’re pleased he liked these chapters and they tend to be the most quoted of the chapters on policy-related blogs.

Let’s look at his “minor complaints.”

First, he doesn’t think the third section of the text, on how religious perspectives look at the balance, are valuable. “Though these chapters provide a useful introduction to medical ethics issues from different traditions, I do not think they connect well with the other chapters or speak to the balance question.” Given that other reviewers have praised the connectedness of the chapters, I’d like to better understand what he means by that portion of his comment. But more importantly, his “speak to the balance question” comment is puzzling. Each chapter in the third section specifically looks at how each religion represented considers how to balance prevention and treatment. The problem is that, except for Seventh Day Adventism (SDA), they all come out on the side of treatment without actually making the comparison in their religious texts or commentaries, except as gleaned from isolated statements.

This was surprising to Paul and me as well – none of Protestantism, Catholicism, or Judaism explicitly address the balance between treatment and prevention. This is the interesting finding from this section. When pushed, the authors of these chapters, who originally all stated there is no preference stated, eventually intuited that indeed treatment is commanded to take precedence in most instances (except in the “community elders” argument of Judaism). And even when Roy Branson’s chapter on SDA went a little deeper he found it easy to conclude that while prevention was still very important historically and theologically, there could be some concern that the SDA treatment system, which today is one of the largest in the US, is overwhelming in its use of resources, worrying that it could crowd out the prevention orientation.

Perhaps Sampat thought that they don’t address the balance question because indeed within the traditions they don’t explicitly address it, and he confused that with not asking or addressing the question within the chapters?

To the second minor complaint I plead guilty: I approached the book originally with the strong bias that prevention is underfunded and we don’t devote sufficient attention to it in policymaking or in the clinic. The latter is demonstrable with the under-use of prevention resources, even those considered cost-saving and cost-effective. This bias was stated explictly in the introduction, wherein Paul and I illustrate this underfunding and under-attention emphasis in various settings and the US’ clear bias toward treatment and away from prevention. This has been my stance throughout my career and I still believe it correct. And here is how I believe, from a policy perspective, this conclusion is dispositive: everyone talks about how treatment care costs too much – and by “health care” they usually mean “treatment” care. And everyone talks about how we don’t do enough in prevention. Yet we continue to pay for treatment care (almost at any cost) even when we know that additional dollars to prevention could help (but not cure) under-utilization of prevention. I address this in chapter 6 of our text, where I point out that funding alone (e.g. first dollar funding of prevention by the Affordable Care Act) won’t fix the access and other issues associated with successful prevention for individuals and communities.

Having said this, Sampat would be surprised to find how much my own view and public stances on prevention have changed since beginning the book. Now instead of speaking in full defense of prevention I add nuances of concern and reality. I even have one talk, “The Moral Problem of Prevention,” where I explicitly point out these concerns and why prevention might not take the theoretical moral high road which it used to take.

I agree also with Sampat’s concern that we didn’t spend more time on both the politics of prevention (mostly just covered in Diana Petitti’s chapter) and how the values-attitudes mix impacts both policy and individual decision-making. I call for more imagination in effecting the “affect heuristic” in prevention – we need to figure out how we can evoke better future suffering because of a lack of prevention in order to have decision-makers understand better their effects when they don’t fund prevention. Indeed the theme of the American College of Preventive Medicine’s 2015 meeting will be just that – Imagination in Preventive Medicine, from a policy and delivery perspective.

Generally those who practice prevention both in the public health and private clinical spheres have not been very good at marketing health to their stakeholders. Certainly marketing techniques like those used for unhealthy products and services have evolved into fine arts – glossy well-designed corporate annual reports, while many public health programs still use the equivalent of xeroxed, hand-folded brochures. We need to find efficient, effective ways to deliver better messages, motivate people in different directions, and change tastes (literally).

Perhaps Paul Menzel and I will produce volume 2, which would address some of Sampat’s minor complaints. Maybe he’d like to explore the political context more? We would have liked to have addressed some of his complaints in our first volume, but frankly were concerned about going over 400 pages for practical publication purposes.

At the same time, we thank him for his comments and review.

Nice Review of Prevent vs. Treat by Linda Hill

As an admittedly boastful statement, I am pleased with Linda Hill’s review of Menzel’s and my Prevention vs. Treatment:  What’s the Right Balance? in the June, 2012 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.  The concluding paragraph reads:

Impressively, the author of each chapter is aware of the material discussed in the other chapters and is able to put his or her own discussion in the larger context. This must have required tight coordination among authors including sharing of drafts, as well as superb editing. This is a thoughtful and very well written text, contributing in a meaningful way to the fıeld.

While I am proud of the statements by Linda, my real reason for posting this review information is to call attention to the AJPM search for a new editor-in-chief (EIC). The AJPM has done remarkably under the current editorial staff, lead by Kevin Patrick, the EIC,  and his managing editor, Charlotte Seidman.  Both have decided to retire from their AJPM responsibilities at the end of 2013 after almost 20 years – a remarkable tenure for any journal editor.  The journal’s Board of Governors (of which I am one) is now searching for their successors.  The call for applications or nominations for the EIC can be found here.  If you know of anyone capable and interested in this position, please don’t hesitate to contact the Journal secretary or treasurer (listed on the website link above), or me.  Thanks.

One Infant Dies from Whooping Cough; Unvaccinated and Political Officials Responsible

A 2-month-old infant died from whooping cough (pertussis) yesterday in New Mexico. It’s unclear how the child was exposed to the disease. It had been vaccinated with its first dose of vaccine, usually given at 2, 4, and 6 months, and then later in childhood several times as well. Recently the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that adults be re-vaccinated for pertussis when they get their tetanus and diphtheria booster shots as well.

Pertussis vaccine is very effective, but immunity wanes after 4-20 years (depending on age of the individual, number of booster shots, etc.). Herd immunity for pertussis requires a high vaccination rate – in the 92-94% range. Since vaccine efficacy is somewhere between 85% and 95% (depending on the study you read), if herd immunity is not reached even those vaccinated (but not with effective immunity) are vulnerable.

Before vaccines were available, for example “from 1926 to 1930, there were 36,013 pertussis-related deaths in the United States. The average death rates from 1940 to 1948 per 100,000 population per year were 64 in children less than 1 year old, 6.4 in those 1–4 years of age, and 0.2 in those 5–14 years of age. More than 90% of the reported pertussis cases occurred in children less than 10 years of age, with about 10% of those in children less than 1 year of age.” (Cherry, 2007) Since vaccination has become available, death rates have dropped to less than 1 per 100,000 population.

The tragedy here is not solely the one New Mexico infant’s life (which I don’t mean to minimize with this commentary). The tragedy is that these deaths are preventable. Now, I’m not one to attribute blame for many things – I find it doesn’t do much good to concentrate on who did something, but more to look at why it happened and how we can correct the situation, including preventing deaths in the future. But in this case it seems clear to me that we have blame to apportion in two arenas: 1. those who don’t vaccinate their children or get their own vaccinations, and 2. our politicians who skimp on public health resources.

1. The unvaccinated are responsible for the death of this infant.
Parents who are irrationally fearful of getting their children vaccinated reduce the population vaccination rates and therefore herd immunity is not obtained. Similarly, adults who don’t get their booster shots are as culpable.

Because immunity is not 100% obtained by 100% of the population being vaccinated, some individuals will be vulnerable to getting pertusis. The only way to prevent those vaccine failures from getting the disease is for the population to reach its herd immunity, requiring at least 94% of the population being vaccinated. Those who don’t get vaccinated (aside from those who have justifiable medical reasons like compromised immune systems from cancer or immune deficiencies) are reducing the probability of herd immunity. They are, in essence, freeloaders – thinking they can avoid the disease while abdicating their responsibility to prevent it for themselves or others.

2. Our state and local politicians (and federal to some extent) are responsible for the death of this infant.
Local and state health departments have been devastated with the reduction in financing during this recession. They have lost 15-25% of their personnel, had to reduce or eliminate 33% of their programs, and have had significant morale problems. They are asked to perform almost all of the functions they were doing before 2008 with many fewer resources. This impacts vaccination rates and surveillance capabilities.

It’s always difficult to point the finger at one fiscal cut and say “that caused this infant’s death.” That’s because people don’t attribute the same kind of cause and effect from indistinct dollars (even if guided to certain programs) and unidentified lives in the community. But there are plenty of philosophical reasons to claim that there is no difference between identified and unidentified lives when it comes to health care expenditures. (Harvard’s Program in Ethics and Health had a 2-day conference on this topic last month.)

But politicians who self-righteously defend program cuts while simultaneously decrying the ineffectiveness of our health care system or public health system are as culpable as freeloading parents who don’t get their children vaccinated, or adults who aren’t re-vaccinated. And now they want to do it again: cutting the Prevention and Public Health Trust Fund to reduce interest rates on college loans.

What about you – are you up-to-date on your booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertusis? If you are over 60 have you gotten your shingles and pneumococcal vaccines?


A couple of days after I first posted this item it came to light that the state of Washington declared a pertussis epidemic on April 3rd. Over 1280 cases have been reported as of May 11. The governor of WA “announced the state is putting $90,000 into a public awareness campaign and diverting some federal money to pay for 27,000 doses of vaccine.” Where was the governor in preventing the epidemic in the first place? This gets back to the old question: “Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the right balance?” Unfortunately, this is another example of prevention not getting its due when it could have been more effective – before the epidemic occurred.

Second addendum:
See the NY Times article today about this outbreak. Here’s the particularly relevant paragraph:

Here in Skagit County, about an hour’s drive north of Seattle — the hardest-hit corner of the state, based on pertussis cases per capita — the local Public Health Department has half the staff it did in 2008. Preventive care programs, intended to keep people healthy, are mostly gone.

In this case Scott Gottlieb has it wrong

A couple of weeks ago Scott Gottlieb wrote an op-ed rant in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Meet the ObamaCare Mandate Committee.” I usually enjoy Gottlieb’s op-eds, though often don’t agree with him. He is usually thoughtful, even if he has a really negative view of the FDA, for example. I don’t share this view, but find his arguments thought-provoking. [I’ve told Peggy Hamburg in the past that I think the FDA does good work given its mandate and available resources. This is from many years and a number of companies in my venture capital portfolio that have had to get FDA clearance for devices or drugs. The FDA has an important population medicine role and it fulfills it very well.]

In Gottlieb’s current case, though, I can’t say I can even appreciate his viewpoint. It isn’t thought-provoking as much as significantly misleading and even poorly argued. Gottlieb, who seems to think that any cost considerations in medical decision-making is the equivalent of the Devil doing her dirty work, argues that the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has been given too much power within the context of the Accountable Care Act, AKA ObamaCare.

The USPSTF has been in business since the mid-1980s. It was the first significant federal body to use carefully reasoned data analysis and literature searches to make recommendations related to screening for disease, or risk factor reduction. After thorough analysis of existing data about a screening test, preventive medication, or prevention counseling technique, the
USPSTF issues a letter grade on any particular item as follows:

Grade A The USPSTF recommends the service. There is high certainty that the net benefit is substantial.
Grade B The USPSTF recommends the service. There is high certainty that the net benefit is moderate, or there is moderate certainty that the net benefit is moderate to substantial.
Grade C Note: The following statement is undergoing revision.
Clinicians may provide this service to selected patients depending on individual circumstances. However, for most individuals without signs or symptoms there is likely to be only a small benefit from this service.
Grade D The USPSTF recommends against the service. There is moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit or that the harms outweigh the benefits.
I Statement The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits & harms of the service.

The USPSTF uses very high criteria for determining these letter grades. ObamaCare determined (in my view appropriately – I’ll elaborate in a moment) that a recommendation of “A” or “B” would automatically qualify for full coverage in the federal mandate for benefits coverage. Thus Gottlieb is correct when he states that this committee “is empowered to evaluate preventive health services and decide which will be covered by health-insurance plans.” But he implies that this committee exists solely to do such a thing, and that its forward-going tour de force will be to wield power to force costs on the health care system by covering what it likes, and also reduce costs by downgrading items it doesn’t like.

[I say in my view appropriately because when I was Medical Director at Aetna in 1988 I helped develop a prevention rider that was based on the USPSTF’s recommendations – it was the only unbiased, evidence-based screening and prevention group in the nation at the time. Subsequently the American College of Preventive Medicine’s board of regents recommended that the Clinton Health Care Reform plan include the USPSTF’s recommendations also. I chaired the policy committee of the ACPM at that time.]

Back to Gottlieb. He also slams the USPSTF because of its change in screening recommendation for mammography in 2009. Many advocacy groups didn’t like the change because it reduced the frequency and starting age of screening for breast cancer (see chapter 5 of Prevention vs. Treatment by Dianna Petitti, vice-Chair of the USPSTF at the time). So, Gottlieb doesn’t like (a) the power the USPSTF possesses, (b) the fact that its recommendations may increase some costs, (c) the fact that some of its recommendations may decrease some costs if recommendations are not A or B, and (d) the fact that advocacy groups may have less clout than they have in the past.

You can’t have it both ways, Scott. Do you want evidence-based medicine? Do you want effective medicine? Or do you want only unbridled freedom for anyone to do anything they want, causing the out-of-control spiral of health care costs already burdening the system?

Let’s look at each of the complaints Gottlieb poses:

1. The USPSTF has some power. Yes, it does. Why is this a problem? He doesn’t say. He tries to argue that it is because it has made decisions in the past that he doesn’t like. But no one can argue that the USPSTF has been arbitrary and capricious in its decisions. It has looked at the evidence, modeled the harms and benefits (where information is available), and dispassionately made recommendations. Is that wrong? Would we rather have politicians making coverage decisions that usually have been arbitrary and capricious, mostly because of the politicians’ personal experiences only, or pressures from advocacy groups that then get resources that are far disproportionate to the diseases for which they advocate? I don’t think so. One way to get that arbitrary and capricious decision out of the hands of those who are (as Kahnemann would say) fast thinkers without using their slow thinking is to put it into the hands of those who can think slowly and methodically.

We know that advocacy groups and individuals don’t necessarily care about the evidence, they care about their advocacy mission. The USPSTF is scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest (financial) and conflicts of commitment (advocacy). Most medical specialty societies and advocacy groups can’t avoid these conflicts by definition.

Gottlieb is further worried that “the task force will surely recommend against many services that patients now take for granted, while mandating full insurance coverage for things that they’d be just as happy paying for.” As medicine advances we learn that some things don’t work which we thought did, and some things do work which we may not have thought did. Why shouldn’t coverages be shifted appropriately once we have this new information? Are we stuck in using arsenicals for syphilis and not antibiotics because patients (and physicians) are now “taken for granted?”

2. A or B recommendations will increase costs. Yes, they might. As Louise Russell points out in chapter 3 of Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the Right Balance? (Oxford University Press, 2011), not all prevention is cost-saving. Some is merely cost-effective. Until now the USPSTF has not considered costs in its evaluation and recommendations. It can start doing so given the mandate from the ACA. But will it? It’s not clear. However, Scott complains that it is allowed to. Wait a minute. He also complains that prevention might cost money. Wait a minute. He also complains that some prevention might be dropped because it isn’t cost-effective. Wait a minute. I’m confused. Do costs matter or not? Does effectiveness matter or not? Gottlieb needs to tell us – is he for or against effectiveness as a criterion for coverage? Is effectiveness more important in prevention than treatment, or less so (or equal)?

3. C, D, or I recommendations may decrease costs. See #2 above. Plus: insurers still have the option to cover them. But why would they consider covering a D or I recommendation? A D recommendation says that the screening method creates more harms than benefits. This is a good reason to avoid its use. If an individual wants to pay for it to expose himself/herself to the harms then one can ask why an insurer should get involved. Further, one could even ask why an insurer should be on the hook to cover the treatment that likely will be required for the harms once this poorly informed and evaluated decision is made by the patient and provided by his/her physician.

For an “I” recommendation there isn’t enough information to know if screening or treatment is of any value. In essence this makes it like an “experimental” decision, except it is not being done in a controlled clinical trial, but simply out of ignorance by patient and provider. By what right does a patient have to get this paid for by the commons?

That leaves “C” recommendations, for which the evidence is not solid and the patient and physician need to have a lengthy discussion of its value and risks. Leaving aside the problem that most physicians don’t have the time to provide full information and explanation/discussion of these issues with patients, (and indeed don’t – see the February American Journal of Preventive Medicine article about this), the C category is one for legitimate discussion and disagreement perhaps. In this case insurers can decide based on the marketplace whether coverage is appropriate or not. Here is where advocacy groups and conflicted treatment specialists can weigh in with some clout.

4. Per #1 above, advocacy groups may have less clout than in the past because they have less influence on the USPSTF. But they still can argue their cases in responding to proposed recommendations – the recommendations are provided as drafts for a defined time period for comment before issued. They also can still advocate for increased research funding for their causes. The research is (and should be) outside of insurance coverage. First prove something works. Then let it be covered. Otherwise we’d be covering a lot of nonsense simply because one party or another claims it works.

I do agree that the process should be transparent. I doubt if the Task Force members would feel significantly different. Except they should be able to go about their work initially undisturbed by advocacy groups. If the task force misses a key study, the advocacy group has the option of pointing it out to them when the draft recommendation is released for comment. The recommendations are released usually about the same time as the evidence base review is released, usually in a peer reviewed journal.

And to go to Gottlieb’s introductory and concluding paragraphs about contraception. The actual coverage decision for that was not made by the USPSTF, but by a different body. The Obama administration could have rejected that recommendation for political reasons, and is modifying it now (like with the allowance of over-the-counter sales to minors of emergency contraception). How can Gottlieb imply or fault the USPSTF for that decision?

On Mary-Charlotte Domandi’s Santa Fe Radio Cafe – February 6, 2011

For those interested in listening to a one hour talk show interview on Prevention vs. Treatment see Mary Charlotte Domandi’s Santa Fe Radio Cafe from February 6, 2011:  http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/monday-february-6-2012/id251501948?i=110315265.

Birth Control, Religious Freedom, and Moral Dilemmas

In the Wall Street Journal today (January 25, 2012) Archbishop Timothy Dolan argues that the mandate to cover birth control for all Americans, without excluding conscience-driven religious organizations like the Catholic Church, is unfair. He argues that the US Constitution prohibits such mandates on religious institutions.

He admits that the religious exemption included in the Obama rules regarding coverage of birth control would include religious organizations that primarily engage in serving people of their own religion. But Dolan wants a broader exclusion of any employment by any Catholic organization.

My guess is that Dolan will be happy to continue to accept Federal funding for Catholic Family Services and other religiously-based organizations that provide services to non-Catholic families. Such Federal funding generally helps to defray overhead costs for the core mission of such services (Jewish Family Services also benefits from these kind of arrangements in various cities) while providing fee-for-service or contract services to help the needy and indigent.

Apparently the separation of church and state isn’t as broad as Dolan makes it sound.  (He also accepts tax-free accommodations for his various real estate and sales activities, tax-free public services like fire and police, etc.) In essence he is saying, “I’m a citizen when I want to be.” While I agree with the right of freedom of religion without interference by the state regarding beliefs and ability to worship, I don’t agree on religion’s being able to pick and choose when it engages and when it doesn’t with the state on its own terms.  After all, freedom of religion is a state-given (constitutional) benefit.

But I’m no constitutional scholar, nor an academic on how the church (generically) benefits from its constitutionally-defined separation from federal/state/local citizenship. I would note, however, that the church does follow some other government employment laws and rules and regulations without current constitution-related separation arguments. So they clearly comply when they want to.  The question is, what is the right balance of engagement and compliance vs. belief-driven dissonance?

Let’s look at Dolan’s concluding three paragraphs, which is where his logic is incomplete.

In the third-from last paragraph, Dolan states, “Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience. Organizations fear that this unjust rule will force them to … Stop serving people of all faiths…or stop providing health-care coverage to their own employees.”

This is what ethicists call a moral dilemma: when two (or more)_ options are available, all presumably equally important yet also independent and exclusive (I can’t do two or more actions, only one right now), all of which  would be morally right, and a decision must be made. So the church in this case would have to decide: do I act on my principles related to birth control, or on other principles:  helping the indigent no matter their religious affiliation; providing fair and just benefits to our employees. OK, a difficult decision if all of these items are equal.  This is a true moral dilemma.  There are lots of Catholic teachings about the vision of what a Catholic conception of a good society with social justice entails.  As Nuala Kenny states in chapter 13 of Prevention vs. Treatment:  What’s the Right Balance? :

  • Dignity of the human person
  • Social interdependence and social solidarity
  • Commitment to the common good
  • Special obligation to the poor and vulnerable
  • Stewardship of resources
  • Subsidiarity decisions should be made at level of those most affected.

The church then needs to decide if this concept of social justice for the poor and vulnerable, something they tend to generously through various services they provide to non-Catholics as well as Catholics, is less important for the common good than not providing birth control as a benefit.  They could provide the benefit while preaching to their employees that it shouldn’t be used, in order to be in compliance with the federal rules.

In terms of the fair and just dealing with employees, the Church has been out in front of this issue for many years both in the US and abroad.  If the church values this then it is hard to see how they would terminate health insurance benefits for their employees.   It would have determined that the health and well-being of its employees is less important than its concern about the provision of birth control benefits.  It could compensate employees for the foregone costs of health insurance and discontinue the benefit.  Employees would then be obligated to purchase health insurance from exchanges or elsewhere, which also would be providing the benefit.  This is a reasonable choice for the church, though inconveniencing its employees.

In the second paragraph from the end, the Archbishop states, “…the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.” Indeed in this case the archbishop simply has it wrong – the Obama administration is treating birth control as it should be treated – a preventive measure. This is evident in their stating that there would be no copays or deductibles – operative as a benefit only under the prevention provision of the ACA. For many years women have argued that pregnancy is not a disease.  And I think they are right.  But preventive measures are not taken only to avoid disease. Such measures are also taken to enhance well-being.

If society is to take social determinants of health and well-being seriously, then they cannot ignore the effects of unplanned pregnancies on such social determinants. And the church cannot simply pick and choose when they wish to do so.  So Timothy Dolan and other Archbishops around the country do have what is seemingly a moral dilemma:  stick with their opposition to birth control, or stick with their support of the needy and vulnerable, or stick with their support of just and fair employment practices.  Which will it be?  Are these mutually exclusive?  Or will a better, non-exclusive balance be struck?


Addendum 1/27/12:

David Skeel has a short op-ed in the Wall Street Journal discussing this issue regarding how the courts decide many of the issues at stake.  In particular he mentions the narrow religious exception permitted under the Obama rule consistent with earlier Supreme Court rulings (Hosanna-Tabor).

Does Prevention Save Money?

There is a significant difference between something saving money (net reduction in total expenditure) and being cost-effective (requiring less cost per outcome than something else). Sarah Kliff from the Washington Post takes on this question by discussing Louise Russell’s chapter 3 in Menzel’s and my edited text, Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the Right Balance? Doug Kamerow also addresses this question in more layman’s terms in his new text, Dissecting American Health Care, Commentaries on Health, Policy, and Politics (RTI Press, p. 29).

The argument Kliff looks most at is related to the table Russell shows (figure 3.1) by Joshua Cohen, et. al. that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008. According to Google Scholar this article has been cited 195 times since its publication.

It seems to me there is one problem with Cohen, et. al.’s article: it lumps together apples and oranges in its comparison. To compare all well-defined studies of prevention with all well-defined studies of treatment ends up comparing such disparate items as genetic screening for inborn errors of metabolism and surgery for elderly men with prostate cancer. On a macro basis this may be the best we can do when asking the economic question of prevention vs. treatment. But such comparisons seem besides the point when mixed together. I’d rather see comparisons of like-minded prevention and treatment. For example, how does preventive statin use compare with coronary artery bypass surgery? Or more broadly, how does screening and reduction of risk factors for heart disease compare with treatment of preventable heart disease?

A discerning eye can see that prevention cannot impact all types of heart disease, e.g., already established unexplainable congenital heart defects, or right heart failure due to hereditary chronic lung disease. Many (perhaps most) diseases we find in medical textbooks do not have easily defined causes which can be short-circuited by prevention maneuvers. Just as we cannot prevent a disease in a non-at-risk population (i.e., a population that cannot get the disease in the first place – men don’t get ovarian cancer; women who’ve had total hysterectomies cannot get uterine cancer), we cannot prevent a disease for which we do not know predisposing risk factors or causative agents.

[Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we can’t prevent disease without knowing its proximate cause. Scurvy was prevented in sailors without knowing about vitamin C per se; it was prevented by an observation of the relationship of the lack of citrus fruits and the profound spread of scurvy among sailors. In this case citrus fruits were a surrogate for the active vitamin C ingredient. There are many other such examples in the history of preventive medicine. See, for example. Burt Gerstman’s Epidemiology Kept Simple, 2003, p 290]

One other problem with the cost-effectiveness analyses typically done: they discount the value of future lives. This almost automatically puts prevention at a disadvantage because by definition the effects of prevention are in the future, while the effects of treatment are usually gained in the short-term. So for every life saved in treatment this year, we would need two or more lives saved in the future through prevention if we discount lives. This has interesting ethical implications, the most obvious of which is: why is a life in the future worth less than a life right now? Menzel explores this issue in detail in chapter 11 of Prevention vs. Treatment and I won’t recount his discussion here other than to say that the economic rationale of discounting monetary value most likely doesn’t hold for the value of life, especially when an ethical analysis is done. Because we make health policy including not just dollars but also values, this may hold a very telling modification of the policy implications of Russell’s analysis.

PSA Screening and Prostate Cancer

Making health policy involves many different aspects of life:  scientific evidence of a highly predictive diagnostic test, reasonable price, competing resource demands, comfort and convenience of a test, seriousness of the disease being detected, impact of the disease on the individual and the population, etc.

Anyone who’s been involved in health policy debates will recognize that, except for predictive value of the test and actual cost of the test, both of which can be determined somewhat objectively, all of the rest of the items listed above are laden with values (and one can argue even arriving at the predictive value involved significant calls on various values in doing the studies).   Evidence-based medicine only provides information, it doesn’t provide a support of values and how they will be applied in society.

Rather than reproduce some of the less-than-obvious arguments about screening for prostate cancer here, those interested can find more information in Paul Menzel’s and my recent posting on the Oxford University Press blog website.

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