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The Value Of “The Oath”

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By Steve Simmons, M.D.

When I graduated from the University of Tennessee’s Medical School sixteen years ago, my last act as a student was to take the Oath of Hippocrates with my classmates and 98% of the other medical students graduating in the United States that year.  This oath still resonates within me today and connects me to all physicians reaching back over 2,500 years to the time of Hippocrates.

Implicit in an oath is the understanding that the profession chosen will require more sacrifice than the average vocation, that the occupation’s rewards should be more than a paycheck, and that a paycheck would impart less value than the enrichment gained from nobly serving others.  The high standard which society holds physicians to is still accurately described by the Hippocratic Oath. Regardless of what changes seep into our profession from outside influences, doctors will always be held to the ideals written in the Hippocratic Oath.

When I was a young medical student, the hope that becoming a physician would bring value and meaning to my life was more rewarding than thoughts of job security or financial stability.  This helped propel me and my classmates through many long nights of study.  One sentiment oft-heard in my medical school, and I suspect many medical schools today, was that no one would put up with ‘this’ just for money–usually stated prior to a re-doubling of the effort to get past a particularly challenging task.  Painful physical effort often was required, such as waking at 3AM to make hospital rounds,  or spending 24-hour long shifts stealing naps and bathroom breaks, sometimes even working over 100 hours a week during demanding rotations.  Steven Miles, a physician bioethicist, wrote, “At some level, physicians recognize that a personal revelation of moral commitments is necessary to the practice of medicine.”

I would proffer that few students would endure the sacrifices necessary to graduate without understanding this point.

In Paul Starr’s 1982 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, he stated that in the future the goal of the health industry would not be better health, but rather the rate of return on investments. This unfortunately has come to pass.  Arguably, medicine now is controlled by CEOs and other executives in the health industry — individuals who are not expected to take an oath.  Physicians, remaining loyal to the Oath, are an unwitting weak and junior partner in today’s health care industry.  Worse, doctors are now employees, often seen as interchangeable parts with one doctor considered no different than another. Third party providers in the health care industry fail to place any value on the personal interactions between doctor and patient.  It may be better that the CEOs of health insurance companies are not required to take an oath, since many are on record, admitting loyalty to the share-holder alone with profits their first consideration.

Before the Great Depression, only 24% of the U.S. medical school graduates were given the Oath at graduation.  Does this suggest they were less ethical? I don’t think so.  I believe the increased use of the Oath demonstrates a growing awareness on the part of our educators that business has taken a controlling interest in the practice of medicine and that their graduates should be reminded that society still expects them to deliver on the noble promises of the past.  Hippocrates’ Oath helped pry medicine away from superstition and the controlling interests of Greece’s priesthood in the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates plotted a course towards science using inductive reasoning while his Oath anchored his fledgling art on moral truths unassailable even today.  I suspect he would see little difference between those profiting within the priesthood of his day and those monopolizing healthcare today.   He would find familiarity in those putting forth their difficult-to-decode rules of reimbursement, recognizing these rules as intentionally confusing, pejorative, and detrimental to patients and physicians alike while profiting those few in control. 

How would Hippocrates advise today’s students and physicians when shown how monetary realities have finally subsumed us all?  He might remind us that money was not our motivation in pursuing this career and show us how a return to the reverence for our art, embodied by the Oath, could become a modern conveyance to the ideals of the past.  By regaining our reverence for what motivated and guided us through medical school and residency we should find ample courage to do whatever is necessary.  Much is needed to wrest control of today’s broken healthcare system from those making huge profits…. and an oath can remind us why it is important. 

Until next time, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD

President Obama Needs You!

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By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

We are asking a lot of President Obama. We are asking him to end the wars around the globe, help societies in need, bring jobs and prosperity back to the United States, provide healthcare for all Americans, improve our children’s education, and so on. In his inaugural address, President Obama agreed to tackle many of these issues. We must remember, however, that he is not Superman. He has told us many times, including yesterday, that he cannot make these changes alone but needs the help of all Americans. As he said, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world …”

Why am I, a pediatrician, discussing an inaugural speech on a website about healthcare? Because, as the President said, each and every one of us has the responsibility of contributing as much as possible to our society and to the world-at-large. As a pediatrician, one of my responsibilities is to guide mothers and fathers toward being the best parents possible. As a parent, each of you has the responsibility of doing the best job you can in raising your children, even before they are born. This means eating well, and refraining from smoking and drinking during pregnancy. It also means providing for them in as many was as possible. This includes, not only giving them appropriate clothing and food, but also stimulating their minds and hearts. It means treating them with respect, acting as positive role models, and teaching them right from wrong – why smoking and having sex as a teen is wrong, why doing well in school is important, and why all people should be treated equal, whether they are black or white, straight or gay, fat or thin. It means boosting your children’s self confidence and letting them know how much you love them. It means becoming involved in activities which help the environment, community, and those in need. And when children become teens, parents must also change their ways – they must learn to recognize when teens need space and when it is time for them to develop their independence.

President Obama is certainly asking a lot of us. But I know we can rise to the occasion. By being good parents and role models, we will not only have fulfilled our duties and responsibilities, but we will also have prepared the next generation to do the same. Here’s to President Obama – and to each and every parent in America.

Dr. Anonymous Is The Proud New Owner Of A Better Health T-Shirt

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Thanks for the cute photo, Dr. A!

Are For-Profit Healthcare Companies Inherently Less Ethical Than Non-Profit Organizations?

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I was a little surprised by a recent reader comment suggesting that pharmaceutical companies are no different than tobacco manufacturers. While I am strongly opposed to misleading pharmaceutical marketing tactics, the bottom line is that most drugs have a legitimate therapeutic value. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a known carcinogen with no medical value that I can think of. This comparison, however, brought into focus a common underlying assumption: that for-profit companies are inherently less ethical than  non-profit and academic centers.

I’d like to question the tendency to absolve academic centers of any possible wrongdoing on the basis of their educational reputation or non-profit status. Of course, financial gain is not the only motivator behind endeavors, initiatives, and behaviors – though it may be the easiest to measure.

As a medical student I witnessed a sad example of academic misbehavior. Senior residents in the department of plastic surgery were performing liposuction procedures after hours for cash. When a patient experienced an infectious complication from a thigh liposuction procedure, an investigation ensued. The residents claimed to be putting the cash into the residency fund, to be used to support travel, lodging and participation in annual assemblies – therefore exonerating themselves of wrong-doing.

It is unclear if the department chair was fully aware of what the residents were up to, though he was reprimanded, terminated, and ended up teaching at another institution. The plastic surgery department lost its accreditation, and all of the residents had to finish their training elsewhere. As for me, I lost my mentor (the department chair) and ended up not pursuing a career in surgery. There certainly was a lot of fall out from that debacle on all sides.

A case of academic double standards was highlighted recently by Dr. George Lundberg in a Medscape editorial where journal editors claimed that continuing medical education (CME) courses should never be sponsored by for-profit companies. Meanwhile the journal accepted advertising from these same companies:

…The JAMA editors who wrote in 2008: “…providers of continuing medical education courses should not condone or tolerate for-profit companies…providing funding or sponsorship for medical education programs….” This is from a publication that, for more than 100 years, has been supported primarily by advertising revenue, mostly pharmaceutical. The editors will say “yes, but we follow rules to prevent bias or improper influence.” True. So do we, a for-profit company, follow rules that prevent bias and improper influence.

On the positive side, there are many examples of for-profit companies who cultivate a culture of environmental responsibility and charity – Ben & Jerry’s, SC Johnson, and Patagonia come to mind. And let’s not forget the foundations created by Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and many others thanks to overflow from for-profit endeavors.

In the end, conflicts of interest, hidden agendas, and secret quid pro quos are a matter of individual character and corporate culture. The people who build a company (or a country) have more to do with its behaviors and processes than the simple label “for profit” or “non profit” or any assumptions made at such a superficial level.

We are all biased in many ways, both consciously and unconsciously. The best we can do is to strive for transparency. It may be best to judge each entity and/or individual by their degree of transparency rather than profit status, academic status, or subject matter expertise. For-profit companies can be highly ethical, and academic centers can be rife with undisclosed conflicts and questionable behaviors.

Healthcare organizations should not avoid or incur scrutiny based on their profit status alone. Bias comes in many forms – and the best we can do is work for the good of others in full knowledge of the influences around us.

Health Insurers Create A New System To Limit Access To Expensive Radiology Tests

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I just got notice from Blue Cross that they will be implementing a radiology management program for all advanced diagnostic imaging services starting in 2010.  The costs of advanced diagnostic imaging (such as CT, MRI, cardiac nuclear medicine) are rising 10-20% per year.

Radiology management companies are an attempt by insurance companies to slow that growth curve. What does that mean if you are a doctor?  Let me tell you how the program will operate.  Blue Cross calls it their Radiology Quality Initiative or RQI, not to be confused with PQRI.  Here are the details of their radiology benefit management initiative.

Q:  What are the requirements? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Happy Hospitalist Blog*

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