Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Ethics Essay: Why Does America Love Dr. House?

DrRich thanks the Cockroach Catcher (his favorite retired child psychologist) for pointing him to an article (by Mark Wicclair, a bioethicist) and an accompanying editorial (by Deborah Kirklin, a primary care physician) in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Medical Humanities, which deconstruct the television show “House MD.”

A TV show may at first glance seem a strange subject for a medical journal, but this is, after all, a journal whose subject is the “softer” side of medical science. (DrRich hopes his friend the Cockroach Catcher will take no offense at this characterization, and directs him, in the way of an apology, to the recent swipes DrRich has taken at his own cardiology colleagues for their recent sorry efforts at “hard” medical science.)  Besides, the Medical Humanities authors use the premise and the popularity of “House MD” to ask important questions about medical ethics, and the consequent expectations of our society.

DrRich does not watch many television shows, and in particular and out of general principles he avoids medical shows. But he has seen commercials for House, and has heard plenty about it from friends, so he has the gist of it. The editorial by Dr. Kirklin summarizes:

“[House] is arrogant, rude and considers all patients lying idiots. He will do anything, illegal or otherwise, to ensure that his patients—passive objects of his expert attentions—get the investigations and treatments he knows they need. As Wicclair argues, House disregards his patients’ autonomy whenever he deems it necessary.”

Given such a premise, the great popularity of “House MD” raises an obvious question.  Dr. Kirklin:

“… why, given the apparently widely-shared patient expectation that their wishes be respected, do audiences around the world seem so enamoured of House?”

Indeed. While it has not always been the case, maintaining the autonomy of the individual patient has become the primary principle of medical ethics. And medical paternalism, whereby the physician knows best and should rightly make the important medical decisions for his or her patient, is a thing of the past.

It has been formally agreed, all over the world, that patients have a nearly absolute right to determine their own medical destiny. In particular, unless the patient is incapacitated, the doctor must (after taking every step necessary to inform the patient of all the available options, and the potential risks and benefits of each one) defer to the final decision of the patient – even if the doctor strongly disagrees with that decision. Hence, the kind of behavior which is the modus operandi of Dr. House should be universally castigated.

So, the question is: Given that House extravagantly violates his patients’ autonomy whenever he finds an opportunity to do so, joyfully proclaiming his great contempt for their individual rights, then why is his story so popular? And what does that popularity say about us?

To DrRich, the answer seems quite apparent.

The notion that the patient’s autonomy is and ought to be the predominant principle of medical ethics, of course, is entirely consistent with the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights. This ideal first developed in Europe nearly 500 years ago, but had trouble taking root there, and really only flowered when Europeans first came to America and had the opportunity to put it to work in an isolated location, where rigid social structures were not already in place. The development of this ideal culminated with America’s Declaration of Independence, in which our founders declared individual autonomy (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to be an “inalienable” right granted by the Creator, and thus predating and taking precedence over any government created by mankind. And since that time the primacy of the individual in American culture has, more or less, remained our chief operating principle. Individual autonomy – or to put it in more familiar terms, individual freedom – is the foundational principle of our culture, and it is one that is perpetually worth fighting and dying to defend.

So the idea that the autonomy of the individual ought rightly to predominate when it comes to making medical decisions is simply a natural extension of the prime American ideal. Of course, most think, this ought to be the governing principle of medical ethics.

But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There’s another principle of medical ethics that has an even longer history than that of autonomy – the principle of beneficence. Beneficence dictates that the physician must always act to maximize the benefit – and minimize the harm – to the patient. Beneficence recognizes that the physician is the holder of great and special knowledge that is not easily duplicated, and therefore has a special obligation to use that knowledge – always and without exception – to do what he knows is best for the patient. Dr. House is a proponent of the principle of beneficence (though he is caustic and abrasive about expressing it).  DrRich believes House is popular at least partly because the benefits that can accrue to a patient through the principle of beneficence – that is, through medical paternalism – are plain for all to see.

Obviously the principles of beneficence and of individual autonomy will sometimes be in conflict.  When two worthwhile and legitimate ethical principles are found to be in conflict, that is called an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas are often resolved either by consensus or by force. In our case, this dilemma has been resolved (for now) by consensus. The world community has deemed individual autonomy to predominate over beneficence in making medical decisions.

DrRich’s point here is that Dr. House (the champion of beneficence) is not absolutely wrong. Indeed, he espouses a time-honored precept of medical ethics, which until quite recently was THE precept of medical ethics. There is much to be said for beneficence. Making the “right” medical decision often requires having deep and sophisticated knowledge about the options, knowledge which is often beyond the reach of many patients. And even sophisticated patients who are well and truly medically literate will often become lost when they are ill, distraught and afraid, and their capacity to make difficult decisions is diminished. Perhaps, some (like House) would say that their autonomy ought not be their chief concern at such times. Indeed, one could argue that in a perfect world, where the doctor indeed has nearly perfect knowledge and a nearly perfect appreciation of what is best for the patient, beneficence should take precedence over autonomy.

It is instructive to consider how and why autonomy came to be declared, by universal consensus, the predominant principle of medical ethics. It happened after World War II, as a direct result of the Nuremberg Tribunal. During that Tribunal the trials against Nazi doctors revealed heinous behavior – generally involving medical “research” on Jewish prisoners – that exceeded all bounds of civilized activity. It became evident that under some circumstances (circumstances which under the Nazis were extreme but which were by no means unique in human history) individual patients could not rely on the beneficence of society, or the beneficence of the government, or the beneficence of their own doctors to protect them from abuse at the hands of authority. Thusly was the ethical precept which asks patients ultimately to rely on the beneficence of others starkly revealed to be wholly inadequate. The precept of individual autonomy, therefore, won by default.

Subsequently, the Nuremberg Code formally declared individual autonomy to be the predominant precept in medical ethics, and beneficence, while also important, to be of secondary concern. Where a conflict occurs, the patient’s autonomy is to win out. It is important to note that this declaration was not a positive statement about how honoring the autonomy of the individual represents the peak of human ethical behavior, but rather, it was a negative statement. Under duress, the Nuremberg Code admitted, societies (and their agents) often behave very badly, and ultimately only the individual himself can be relied upon to at least attempt to protect his or her own best interests.

DrRich will take this one step further. When our founders made individual autonomy the organizing principle of a new nation, they were also making a negative statement. From their observation of human history (and anyone who doubts that our founders were intimately familiar with the great breadth of human history should re-read the Federalist Papers), they found that individuals could not rely on any earthly authority to protect them, their life and limb, or their individual prerogatives. Mankind had tried every variety of authority – kings, clergy, heroes and philosophers – and individuals were eventually trampled under by them all. For this reason our founders declared individual liberty to be the bedrock of our new culture – because everything else had been tried, and had failed. In the spirit of the enlightenment they agreed to try something new.

There is an inherent problem with relying on individual autonomy as the chief ethical principle of medicine, namely, autonomous patients not infrequently make very bad decisions for themselves, and then have to pay the consequences. The same occurs when we rely on individual autonomy as the chief operating principle of our civil life. The capacity of individuals to fend for themselves – to succeed in a competitive culture – is not equal, and so the outcomes are decidedly unequal. Autonomous individuals often fail – either because of inherent personal limitations, bad decisions, or bad luck.

So whether we’re talking about medicine or society at large, despite our foundational principles we will always have the tendency to return to a posture of dependence – of relying on the beneficence of some authority, in the hope of achieving more overall security or fairness – at the sacrifice of our individual autonomy. In DrRich’s estimation the popularity of “House MD” is entirely consistent with this tendency. (Indeed, the writers almost have to make Dr. House as unattractive a person as he is, just to temper our enthusiasm for an authority figure who always knows what is best for us and acts on that knowledge, come hell or high water.)

Those of us who defend the principle of individual autonomy – and the economic system of capitalism that flows from it – all too often forget where it came from, and DrRich believes this is why it can be so difficult to defend it. We – and our founders – did not adopt it as the peak of all human thought, but for the very practical reason that ceding ultimate authority to any other entity, sooner or later, guarantees tyranny. This was true in 1776, and after observing the numerous experiments in socialism we have seen around the world over the past century, is even more true today.

Individual autonomy will always be a very imperfect organizing principle, both for healthcare and for society at large. Making it an acceptable principle takes perpetual hard work, to find ways of smoothing out the stark inequities, without ceding too much corrupting power to some central authority. This is the great American experiment.

Those of us who have the privilege of being Americans today, of all days, find ourselves greatly challenged. But earlier generations of Americans faced challenges that were every bit as difficult. If we continually remind ourselves what’s at stake, and that while our system is not perfect or even perfectable, it remains far better than any other system that has ever been tried, and that we can continue to improve on it without ceding our destiny – medical or civil – to a corruptible central authority, then perhaps we can keep that great American experiment going, and eventually hand it off intact to yet another generation, to face yet another generation’s challenges.

*This blog post was originally published at the Covert Rationing Blog.*

Preserving Pharmaceutical Progress, Part 2

Recently, DrRich offered for your consideration a brilliant proposal that would assure at least some continued advances in pharmaceutical therapy, while at the same time providing for drug price controls.

DrRich was gratified to find that the majority of comments and e-mails he received regarding this proposal were quite complimentary. Sure, there were the obligatory cavils that the drug companies deserve what they’re getting (the essential evil nature of drug companies was, of course, a point that DrRich cheerfully conceded from the outset), and that certain interest groups (breast cancer, AIDS, etc.) even with government price controls would continue funding research aimed at treating certain specific illnesses (a prospect which ignores that translating the kind of basic research done by, say, the NIH into actual useful products requires specific companies to risk hundreds of millions of dollars in product development; see here), but on average the response to DrRich’s proposal was most favorable.

That proposal can be summarized as follows. Each American would formally elect to participate or not in a voluntary plan of price controls. Those who elected to participate would be entitled to receive any legal prescription drug at low prices set by a sympathetic government board, as long as the drug had been on the market for some fixed amount of time. (DrRich arbitrarily suggested five years, but that number could just as easily be set at 10 years, or any other value.) Those who choose not to participate in the price control plan would have to pay whatever the drug companies wished to charge them for all their prescription drugs – but they would be eligible to receive new prescription drugs immediately upon FDA approval (that is, the five- or 10-year waiting period would not apply to them). Finally, individuals would be able to change their status (from participant to non-participant, and vice-versa) only every two years.

Just as is the case with the drug price controls currently under consideration by the Obama administration, DrRich’s plan would achieve low drug prices for anyone who elected to participate. But DrRich’s plan offers, in addition and in distinction, a mechanism by which pharmaceutical progress could continue, albeit at a slower pace than we see today. That is, it provides a population of individuals willing to pay full price for new drugs, thanks to whom the drug companies will be induced to continue spending on drug development.

As a result, even those who choose to participate in DrRich’s price control plan would be able to count on a pipeline of new drugs, which would become available to them at very low prices after the mandated five- or 10-year delay. This is a very useful feature that would not be available under Mr. Obama’s price controls. Indeed, participants in DrRich’s plan would be placing themselves in a situation reminiscent of that experienced by Canadians today. (Canadians, of course, can rely on a steady stream of new, cheap drugs which come to them, with some delay, thanks to a population of individuals south of their border who are paying full freight for those same drugs.)

All we need now is to launch a grassroots movement to convince our legislators that this proposal offers all the benefits of the drug price controls now under consideration by the Obama administration, without its major drawback (i.e., a complete stifling of pharmaceutical progress).  Then, having done that, we will simply need to set up the federal bureaucracy to establish and administer the participation status of every American, and a government board that will set the official prices of all prescription drugs.  With the kind of streamlining in federal processes and procedures promised by the Obama administration, we should be able to implement DrRich’s plan in a matter of just a few years.

The Punch Line

There is, of course, a punch line.

Now that you have had ample time to digest the favorable implications of DrRich’s proposal, and can plainly see the wisdom behind it, you will be delighted to know that you don’t actually have to wait for federal legislation and the establishment of a vast new price-control bureaucracy in order to participate. You can participate today, right now, with nobody’s acquiescence but your own.

Here’s how. Simply declare to yourself that DrRich’s system is already in place, and that you are a participant, and that the only drugs available to you are the ones that have already been on the market five or 10 years or longer. (You can choose your own personal waiting period.) When you see your doctor, insist – demand – that he/she prescribe only older drugs. The price of most of these drugs will be set not by a government panel, but by WalMart (which for many common generic drugs has set a co-pay of $4).  By declaring yourself as boycotting the brand new drugs that are being sold (unfairly, of course) at the highest premium, your personal drug costs will be remarkably reduced – just as if federal price controls were really in place.

Furthermore, since currently there really aren’t federally-mandated price controls, drug companies are not yet constrained from investing in new drugs. As long as this situation continues, there will be a steady stream of new drugs exiting that magic five- or 10-year boycott period you have set for yourself, and thus becoming available to you under your personal, voluntary price control plan.

And best of all, if you were suddenly to develop a medical condition that clearly calls for one of the brand new drugs, one that wouldn’t be available to you, either temporarily under DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System, or ever under a government-mandated price control system (because under the government plan the drug never would have been developed in the first place), you won’t need to wait five or 10 years (or forever) to get that drug. Since you are really only “pretending” there are drug price controls, the moment you decide that a system of price controls is no longer accruing to your own personal benefit, you can simply ask your doctor to write you a prescription.

So: those clamoring for government price controls on drugs can have them today – this very afternoon. They can experience every aspect of price controls (both low prices and the unavailability of new drugs) in a way that places them in no worse a position (indeed, in a far better position) than if government price controls were actually in place, and without reducing the options for everyone else.

Indeed, considering the above, the only way it would make sense to continue demanding mandatory price controls would be if something other than reducing drug prices were the chief motivating aim.

DrRich leaves it as an exercise for his regular readers to determine what that motivating aim could possibly be.

**This blog post was originally published at Dr. Rich’s Covert Rationing Blog.**

A Brilliant Plan For Preserving Pharmaceutical Progress

Almost a decade ago, during the antediluvian period of the internet, on a now-defunct and little-read precursor to this blog (before actual “blogs” were even invented), DrRich wrote a piece entitled, “Phillip Morrissing The Drug Companies.”  In that piece he predicted that, since the American media and the American legal profession had just finished savaging the tobacco companies, they would turn their great engine of destruction (highly-tuned engines of destruction being a terrible thing to waste) on a new target, one that some might consider less worthy of destruction than the evil tobacco companies but a ripe target nonetheless, namely, the pharmaceutical industry.

Many of DrRich’s readers laughed at him, but a few wisely sold all their drug stocks. (These latter would be very happy campers today had they not re-invested their profits first in, then in REITs. If one is going to follow DrRich’s investment advice, one ought not jump too far ahead.)

Today the editors of the Wall Street Journal, for all practical purposes, have placed the official seal of validation on DrRich’s long-ago prediction (though, unaccountably, they fail to mention DrRich by name).   The WSJ notes that the big drug companies, in the few weeks since the Obama budget was sent up, have engaged in an incredible acceleration of mergers – though not in the manner of “creative destruction” that usually typifies such deals, but rather, in the manner of trying to construct a hardened shelter in which to survive the coming nuclear winter. The government price controls and the rationing of drugs which the drug company executives seem to have found in that proposed budget (apparently lobbyists take their jobs seriously enough to actually read legislation before it is voted upon, even if our congresspersons do not) appear to have convinced said executives that the game is about up.

Now, nobody needs to remind DrRich that drug companies are evil. DrRich has watched along with all his readers as the drug companies have fired off a never-ending parade of “me too” drugs mainly aimed at keeping the joints, bowels, bladders and genitalia of aging baby boomers nicely lubed up, then running a steady stream (so to speak) of television commercials regarding same, that render it far too embarrassing to watch prime time television any more with preadolescents. DrRich has watched the drug companies systematically fail to publish research that makes their products look less than spectacular; routinely over-hype research that suggests a modicum of effectiveness; callously corrupt doctors with plastic, logo’d ink pens, and legislators with huge campaign contributions and rides on private jets equipped with plenty of booze and bimbos (causing the indignant legislators to propose rules against logo’d ink pens); and most annoying of all, gouge American citizens with astronomical prices for their new drugs while selling those same drugs to Canadians and other undeserving foreigners at greatly discounted prices.

Still, most objective observers will reluctantly admit that, unlike the tobacco companies, every now and then a drug company will do some good. Here and there they manage to come up with a real breakthrough product that cures a disease, prolongs survival, restores functionality, or relieves suffering. That is, the pharmaceutical industry (in spite of all their evil behavior, which DrRich hastens to remind his readers he has formally acknowledged, as recently as in the prior paragraph) has done a lot of good over the years. Ask a parent whose child has survived acute leukemia, or the person who has survived a life-threatening infection, or the woman whose heart attack or stroke was aborted with clot-busting drugs, or – yes, this too –  the aging Lothario who once again can enjoy fine and durable erections upon demand. For such individuals, even if today they would join us in cheering on the demise of the pharmaceutical industry, recent advances in drug treatment have undeniably improved their lives.

But the real question we must address before allowing the pharmaceutical industry to roll itself into a ball and hide in the shadows for the duration, is not, “What have you done for me lately?” (since their inventions will live on even if they do not), but rather, “What can you do for me tomorrow?”  Some of us in the boomer class, for instance, would like to think that current research in the areas of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson disease, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, osteoporosis and cancer will allow us to remain healthy and functional for a few extra years. And judging from the massive amounts of money American citizens of all ages donate to medical research of all types, it is apparently not held among the whole of the populace that medical progress has already gone far enough. Many of us would not be entirely pleased to stand pat right here. Many of us would like to see more improvements.

And here is where we run into a dilemma.

Everyone agrees that the cost of new prescription drugs has been kept obscenely high in the name of maximizing profits, and that the rising cost of drugs has been one of the prime drivers of healthcare inflation. Accordingly the plans that apparently have been included in the Obama budget proposal to check those prices – techniques such as federal price controls, drug re-importation and the like,  (but again, who’s actually read the thing?) – will greatly restrict if not eliminate the huge profits made by the evil men (and, one must say it, women) who run these drug companies.

The problem, of course, is that if the potential for reaping large (obscene, if you insist) profits from new drugs is significantly curtailed, the hugely expensive process necessary for drug companies to bring new drugs to market will be proportionally curtailed. So if we place price controls on drugs, then we’d better be happy with the drugs we have today, because those are likely the only drugs we’ll have tomorrow.

There are some who would be quite satisfied with this outcome, and who would readily sacrifice pharmaceutical progress to keep prices low. And judging from the recent election results, these may even constitute a majority of Americans. Still, others of us appreciate the fact that every few years some truly earth-shattering drug will hit the market, and would think it a shame if progress on such drugs – even if they are but a few scattered islands in a sea of boutique pharmaceuticals – were to come to a halt, and even if for a good reason.

So here’s the question: Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we bring down the price of the drugs we buy, while at the same time allowing at least some pharmaceutical advances to continue?

DrRich is delighted to reply, “Yes, we can!”

And he hereby humbly offers a plan to achieve this very end. It is a system of voluntary price controls. Of course, DrRich is talking here about us doing the volunteering – we the consumers – and not the drug companies.

DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System works like this:

1) Each American will make a formal declaration of whether or not he/she wants to participate in a system of voluntary price controls on drugs.

2) Those who opt to participate will receive immediate, substantial discount pricing on all available prescription drugs, such pricing to be fixed by a sympathetic government agency whose makeup includes a wide diversity of representation, except, of course, that drug company representatives and their physician shills will be specifically excluded.

3) “Available prescription drugs” under this price control system will be any drug whatsoever appearing in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia – that is, any legal prescription drug – as long as that drug has been on the market for at least five years.

4) Individuals who choose not to participate in the price control system will pay whatever price the drug companies feel like charging them for all their prescription drugs, but they will be allowed to receive any drug, as soon as it is approved for marketing, with no five-year waiting period for new drugs.

5) Individuals may switch their status (between participant and non-participant) only during one 30-day window every 2 years, determined by their month of birth.

Why DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System is brilliant:

For drug companies it is the prospect of making large profits from new drugs, and only that prospect, that drives drug development. So as long as we want new drugs to be invented we’ve got to allow for the profit incentive to continue, as odious as we may believe that to be. The chief advantage of DrRich’s system is that it maintains at least some of the profit motive – to whatever extent citizens opt to be non-participants in the Voluntary Price Control System.

Given the growing hue and cry for price controls on drugs, one can confidently predict that only rich people will opt for this non-participant status. Therefore, a side benefit of this plan is that the rich – those who, after all, can afford it, and who, by virtue of the very fact that they are rich, owe much to the rest of us – will fund virtually all progress in drug therapy. Again, this is a burden they ought to feel obligated to bear, being rich and therefore, well, obligated.

In contrast, under the universal, mandatory price control system of the kind that many politicians seem to favor (and which may be voted into existence in a matter of days) drugs available to our citizens would be essentially “frozen in time,” and henceforth there would be little or nothing new under the sun.

Of course, under DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System, access to new drugs would be similarly restricted for participants. Yet this voluntary system would be far better to even those who choose to participate than would be a universal price control system – because under DrRich’s plan at least some drug progress would continue. And as new prescription drugs matured in the marketplace, and once their hidden dangers and side effects – during the 5-year “shakedown period” –  manifested themselves on the physiology of the wealthy (nya-ha-ha), these drugs would (eventually) become available even to plan participants, and at a substantial discount to boot.

The bottom line: a five-year lag in gaining access to new drugs is vastly better than never having any new drugs at all, especially when the burden of paying for all that drug development, and the risk of becoming early adopters of new, relatively unproven, relatively risky pharmaceuticals, falls entirely on the rich.

So, while at first blush you may not like DrRich’s system – it being two-tiered and all – on further objective and logical reflection DrRich is confident you will see that it is far better for everyone than the universal system of price controls which now appears imminent.

DrRich suggests you contact your legislators immediately to recommend to them this brilliant new plan, before it is too late. In making your case, you might remind your dedicated congresspersons that a robust pharmaceutical industry is inherently good for America (what with all the campaign contributions, airplane rides, booze, bimbos, etc. it provides to grease the wheels of American democracy).

**This post was originally published at Dr. Rich Fogoros’ Covert Rationing Blog**

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all book reviews »