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50 Percent Of Physicians Disagree With AMA’s Soda Tax Endorsement

The American Medical Association (AMA) voted today to endorse taxation of sugary beverages as a means to raise money for anti-obesity programs. Interestingly, a recent physician survey at Medpage Today suggests that only 50% of physicians think that a soda tax is an effective public health strategy.

I am one of the 50% who feels that this policy will not be effective. In short, this is why:

1. You can become obese by eating and drinking almost anything in excess. Targeting sugary beverages is reductio ad absurdum. Did America become fat simply because of an excess supply of sugary fluids on grocery shelves? What about the super-sizing of our food portions, the change in workforce physical requirements, the advent of cars, escalators, healthy food “deserts” in poor neighborhoods, video games, and cutting gym class from schools?

Holding Coca Cola, et al. responsible  for our own over-consumption of  calories is both unfair and tantamount to spitting into the wind – something bad is going to come back at us. Consumers can easily get around the soda tax by buying sweet alternatives – which may have even more calories than soda. (Caramel latte anyone?) And then what? Are we really going to play public policy, food and beverage whack-a-mole?

Carmelita Jeter's Shopping Cart

2.  You can be thin and fit while eating and drinking almost anything. Obviously nutrition science has shown that a diet rich in fresh fruits and veggies, lean meats, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and healthy fats is the best for our health. However, please consider that the world’s fastest woman, Olympian Carmelita Jeter, eats Hostess cup cakes, Teddy Grahams, Welch’s grape juice, whole milk, and Gatorade. How do I know? Because she posted a photo of her shopping cart on Twitter (see image to the left). I obviously have no idea how much of this she eats – or when she eats it – but if the world’s fastest woman is powered (to some degree) by “Twinkies” then I think we should all think twice about demonizing certain foods/beverages in our anti-obesity fervor.

3. You can’t regulate good behavior. Human behaviors that may lead to obesity are simply too complex to regulate. Who would want to live in a world where government becomes the de facto “Nutrisystem” for its citizens, mailing out pre-packaged, ingredient-controlled meals to 312 million people per day, three times a day, seven days a week?  While that may save the post office from its imminent demise, we can neither afford to do that, nor do we need to.

People who believe that policy should drive behavior point to smoking bans that have cut down on smoking rates. While I agree that small improvements have been made in reducing smoking rates, roughly one in four people still smoke (depending on your source, this number could be as low as one-in-five), and one in every five deaths is still attributed to cigarette smoking. Hardly a resounding victory, alas.

But beyond the fact that policy changes (and the billions we’ve spent enacting and enforcing them) have resulted in a disappointing decrease in smoking rates, is the issue that cigarettes and food ingredients (such as sugar) are not analogous substances. While there is no safe minimum amount of cigarette smoke, our bodies need salt, glucose, and fat to survive. They cannot be cut out of our diet completely – nor should they. And the only way to force people to optimize their intake is to enact Draconian measures.

So instead of starting a food-fight, it’s important to accept the complexities associated with this particular health scourge and promote a broader, more-nuanced approach to wellness incentives. We have to attack this problem from the ground up, because a top-down approach requires our government to become an invasive, food and exercise nanny.

The good news is that one-third of Americans are not overweight or obese, despite our current “toxic” food/inactive lifestyle environment. Perhaps these thinner folks can be ambassadors for the rest of us, and reveal their secrets of healthy living despite our current limitations. Even with our best efforts, we need to understand that (like smokers) we will always have a segment of the population that is overweight or obese.

And as for the Olympians among us – they help to illustrate that obsessing over every morsel of food or cup of soda that we consume is not the way forward. Sorry AMA, I’m with Carmelita on this one.

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Is The Healthcare System A True Marketplace?

The difference between the healthcare system and the medical care system is very clear to me. The stakeholders in the healthcare system are patients, physicians, government, hospital systems, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, pharmacy middlemen, and healthcare insurance companies.

Government, hospital systems, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, pharmacy middlemen, and healthcare insurance companies are secondary stakeholders in the healthcare system.

The primary stakeholders are patients and physicians. They also comprise the medical care system. Without the primary stakeholders there would be no need for a healthcare system.

The secondary stakeholders have long ago taken over the healthcare system. All businesses and the government deal with the hand they are dealt using their best judgment. The people running the business or government pursue their vested interest. The difference between businesses and government is businesses work to make as big a profit as possible. Government, depending on the political party in power, pursues fulfillment of its ideology.

Since 1942 and the Economic Stabilization Act of President Roosevelt Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

What Will Increase Flu Vaccination Rates?

Health care facilities should consider mandatory flu vaccinations for their employees if other attempts don’t increase rates to 90%, a draft statement from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) working group stated.

All public health services, HHS staff and Federally Qualified Health Centers should follow suit, stated the Health Care Personnel Influenza Vaccination Subgroup in draft recommendations.

The working group released five steps to boost vaccination rates:
–Employers should establish comprehensive flu infection prevention programs as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to achieve the Healthy People 2020 influenza vaccine coverage goal of 90%.
–Employers should integrate flu vaccination programs into their existing infection prevention programs.
–HHS should encourage CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to standardize the methodology used to measure Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Healthcare Economics: Employers Incentivize Healthy Lifestyles With Penalties And Rewards

How do companies curb health care costs?

Do healthier employees lead to increased productivity?  Several progressive companies believe so and have committed to providing employees with programs to help engage them in a healthier lifestyle.

As part of the incentives to lead a healthier lifestyle some employers have instituted a penalty and reward system tied to the companies’ benefits.  For example, smokers may incur a significant surcharge to the cost of their health insurance plan while nonsmokers could see a reduction in cost.

According to an article in The New York Times, a growing numbers of companies including Home Depot, PepsiCo, Safeway, Lowe’s and General Mills are seeking higher premiums from some workers who smoke, similar to Wal-Mart’s addition of a $2,000-a-year surcharge for some smokers.

Escalating health care costs Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health in 30*

Will A Market Driven Healthcare System Be Most Effective?

Mechanism Design has demonstrated that the most efficient systems are created when everyone’s vested interests are aligned.

“An example is defense contracting. If you agree to pay on a cost plus basis you have created incentive for the contractor to be inefficient.

The defense contractor will build enough extra into a fixed price system to account for cost overruns.  The cost overrun would be permitted in the rules if the price was transparent. If there were no cost overruns the contractor’s profit would be increased. It would provide incentive to be efficient.

“If you agree to pay a fixed price, you can come close to an efficient price if you have all the truthful information.”

A reader wrote,

Stanley:

History has proven over and over again that only the market mechanism of willing sellers and willing buyers is the optimal way to allocate economic resources. This presumes an informed buyer, and a willingness of sellers to compete for buyers. Adam Smith was clear on this in the Wealth of Nations.

If incentives are aligned and truthful price information is available an efficient system is created.  Most stakeholders think they can do better by not sharing truthful information. If the rules of the game require truthful information the system can become an efficient market driven solution.

The healthcare system must become market driven. At present Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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