Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 1.55.31 PM

The group of academic family physicians that I have the honor of leading this year have found themselves in the midst of a Covid 19 outbreak. Representing all 50 states, these academic leaders are working in some of the largest, most modern academic health centers in the world. Academic health centers that, unfortunately, are not prepared for the challenge that is just now hitting the coasts but will soon spread across the country.

The preamble to this crisis goes back 30 years. As hospitals have tried to maximize their profits, they began using “just-in-time” inventory. Toyota, it turns out, does not have a warehouse for parts. Instead it gets the carburetor (or whatever parts cars have in them now) delivered at the exact moment the car rolls to that point on the assembly line. Hospitals began using the same, getting only the masks or other equipment they need for the next week from the plant (in China) rather that maintain a warehouse. Well, also only having enough hospital beds for people who need them. Toyota never needed to plan on all of America needing a car within the same 2 month period. Hospitals, turns out, also never planned for Americans to get sick all at once. Guess now we know.

We might have overcome the lack of protective gear except for one problem. If you are treating all of America for a virus that acts like 5 other viruses except it kills you, the only way to “not going to die” people from “just might die” people is by testing for the bad virus. If you know the patient has the bad virus, you can isolate him or her and protect the health care workers more accurately. America, with the best funded health systems in the world, botched the test.

If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases.

We have less protective equipment, fewer hospital beds, and more chronically ill people than Italy (7503 deaths to date, 743 last night) and Spain (3434 deaths to date, 514 last night). We did not spend the last year preparing for this surge and, by screwing up the testing, we probably have 200,000 infected people going around infecting others. If you look at the cities where things are bad, they are also cities where either lots of people live (New York, Los Angeles) or cities that had a lot of recent visitors from all over (Mardi Gras in New Orleans). It takes about 4 days to know if you are infected (with something….is it the flu? I just feel a little achy) and if you are going to get really sick it happens on about day 8. So now what?

  1. Sheltering in place. What we know is that if people who are infected limit themselves to limited contact with a small group people, the virus “dies out.” It takes enough time for the virus to finish with patient 0 (the first sick person) and the 2 other people who will likely get sick from that person as well. This virus is spread through coughing, sneezing, and otherwise having fluid spewed. 15 days is not nearly enough time to reduce the number of infected people. Even of only 5% of Americans get this virus (17,000,000) and 10% need intensive care we would need almost 1,000,000 ventilators. This is about 700,000 less than we have now. Without these ventilators people die, with them they live.
  2. Testing and contact tracing. Once we stop sheltering in place, the virus will still be with us. The countries that have successfully reopened have continued to test their populations and, once a positive is found, identified all of the folks they have come in contact with and placed them in “shelter in place” for 2 weeks as well. We not only have not invested in protective gear, we have not invested in this very basic public health workforce.
  3. Adequate personal protective equipment. 40% of those who became ill in China were associated with health care delivery, either as care providers or the families of care providers. Protecting health care workers is vital. Sending health care workers out to potentially die is unconscionable.

So, here we are. One choice is to shelter in place for the next month or three, put up with occasional outbreak which gets tamped down, and delay until a vaccine is developed. Another choice is to throw our hands in the air, declare this too hard, and sit back while 4,000,000 die a potentially preventable death. My colleagues and I believe the first choice is the only choice. Please discuss with the policymakers in your states.

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”  @realDonaldJTrump

We are 341 days and some change away from the presidential election which will determine the fate of healthcare in this country. The current president, Donald J Trump, campaigned in 2016 on the “repeal and replace Obamacare” platform. Although there was a flurry of activity which threatened to bring back the fear of preexisting conditions and the creation of an Obamacarelite product (perfect for those not planning on being sick) for the most part Obamacare remains intact. In fact one of the key components, Medicaid expansion, actually seems stronger than it did under president Obama.

As we gear up for the next election it seems that healthcare is once again getting the politician’s attention. The Republicans are still of the mind that “Obamacare doesn’t work” although they are unable to come up with anything better. The Democrats have pushed out seemingly hundreds of ideas. Though somewhat of a moving target, it seems that the ideas can be coalesced into “Medicare for All” (Sanders and Warren), “Medicare for some more” (most folks), and “Better Obamacare for some” (Harris and Buttigeig). What piqued my interest today was what I thought was an arcane mental health discussion. Senator Harris called to:

Repeal the Institutions of Mental Disease (IMD) exclusionThe IMD exclusion precludes Medicaid funding for adults receiving care in psychiatric facilities with more than 16 beds, and has also exacerbated a severe shortage of acute psychiatric care beds nationwide. Repealing the IMD exclusion will reduce the number of Medicaid patients who end up in already strained general hospital emergency rooms when they need acute psychiatric care.

I thought “This makes sense” until I saw this Vox article:

But on Monday, when Harris’s campaign rolled out its mental health policy plan, it had not been nearly so thoughtful. Harris seems to have gone all-in on attacking the freedom, dignity, and privacy of people with mental health conditions. People like me.

I have to admit, although I know little about the Senator, she does not strike me as THAT evil.

As it turns out, back in 1965 when Medicare and Medicaid were being designed, there were a lot of people in mental institutions that were being imprisoned for their mental illness. Congress, fearful of states using the new Medicaid money to build bigger insane asylums, created a mental illness exception for inpatient treatment. Any facility with more than 16 beds that exclusively treated mental illness was ineligible for Medicaid funding. Although there have been some attempts to repeal it, this exception has stuck over the years. In part because of fears of mental health advocates such as those expressed in Vox. In part because of fears of increased cost. From a demonstration project which included Alabama where the exception was waived:

“Overall, we found little to no evidence of MEPD effects on inpatient admissions to IMDs or general hospital scatter beds; IMD or scatter bed lengths of stays; ER visits and ED boarding; discharge planning by participating IMDs; or the Medicaid share of IMD admissions of adults with psychiatric EMCs.

Available data suggest, however, that increased access of adult Medicaid beneficiaries to IMD inpatient care would likely come at a cost to the federal government.

In short, we are likely to find ourselves where we have always been. Folks suffering from serious mental illness (including substance abuse) only able to use their Medicaid for treatment if they are not too sick. This is in part due to a fear that those who are functional have that they will be locked away rather than treated in the least restrictive environment. This is also reflects the reality that the feds fund “healthcare,” not the prisons and underpass encampments where folks with intractable mental illness are now found.

Nobody knew mental health care was THIS complicated…

“I’m hearing more about getting more people covered,” he said. “I think they should do what they need to do to get elected, [but] . . . getting the costs down is the most important thing.” (Voters have big health worries…. Washington Post)

The concept of “the commons” is not an easy one for Americans to grasp. The concept of the commons originated in England. Sheep were (and are) owned by people but the grazing area was (and is) owned by the community. It was pointed out by William Lloyd that while there was an advantage to the individual to have a bigger herd (more money from wool), collectively the community would suffer as the land was overgrazed. Garret Hardin pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Writing in the journal Science, he felt that relying on conscience as a means of policing commons was problematic as it favors selfish individuals – often known as free riders – over those who are more altruistic.

The median American spends under $300 on health related expenses in a given year. However, the average American spends $10,000.  How is this? It is because  5% of the population account for half of all health spending. The 5% of people who spend the most on health care spend an average of around $50,000 annually; people in the top 1% have average spending of over $109,750.  Getting into the top 1% is kind of a random thing. You get bad cancer…you are there. You have a baby, you are not there but you move from $300 to $11,000 for that year. If you have the unfortunate luck of having your baby early…boom, your baby just hit $1,000,000.

So, in the The Affordable Care Act was designed, in part, to address the “free rider” problem in health care. Turns out almost everyone is willing to pay $300 for their healthcare every year. Almost nobody can pay over $100,000 when they randomly get cancer. What people are inclined to do is take advantage of the fact that other folks are paying into a system to support cancer care and then, when they get cancer, show up and  assume “it’ll get paid for.” The problem of the commons. The mandate was put in place to make us all pay for it to be there. Also, to make us all aware that the way we have it set up is very expensive and inefficient.

What we have made explicit through the Obamacare mandate is that the admission to the healthcare commons costs working families about $17,000 a year. On top of that about a third of our tax dollars are going into paying for the healthcare commons. Given the small amount Americans see themselves taking in a given year, it is no wonder they resented the mandate. On top of that, the value we receive is much less than what citizens of other countries get. On average they live longer, are healthier, and report fewer problems than Americans. They pay about half (or less) of what we do as well.

In the analogy of healthcare as a commons, who is getting rich?  Unlike sheep, sick Americans are not left to graze alone. Although there are now “free riders” because the mandate has been removed, this is only a small part of the problem. Turns out that our “grazing” is directed by doctors and hospitals motivated by the profit motive (with no price transparency), pharmaceutical companies advertising high cost medications directly to the consumer (with no price transparency) and people with limited health literacy who are making decisions based on fear, misinformation, and who are given guidance by folks who profit from the consumers ignorance. Other aspects of Obamacare, designed to fix these problem, are either not being implemented or being held in check by powerful interests (doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies).

Which brings us to the the tragedy of the healthcare commons. We as a country are about to enter into a time where we spend more on healthcare than the average person makes. In England, to this day, there are all sorts of rules about who can use the common land and how many ducks, sheep, and the like he or she may put on the land. In America, we declare where our cows are to be a “sovereign state” and shoot at those who try to enforce the rules of the commons. One Republican Senator said of the  folks engaged in rule-breaking, “These people are patriots.”

We thought the individual mandate addressed free-riders. The reality is that the person with no health insurance who gets in a car crash or gets bad cancer is only part of the problem. The real “free riders” are those who profit but have no responsibility for the upkeep of the commons. The controls needed are not to keep people from consuming healthcare. The real need is for controls on those who would profit from folks who are scared, hurt, and confused about how to use a broken system. There are many ways for these controls to be put into place. The question is do we have the strength as a country to enforce such controls or do we declare those folks who profit at the expense of all of us patriots?

Business executive at party: “What do you and your friends do?”

Me: “We work at the medical school”

Business executive: “No, I know that. I mean what is it that you guys DO”

Me: “We all work in different areas. For example I train doctors in Family Medicine”

Business executive: “Well, tell me, why do we need Obamacare”

Me: Very long, detailed soliloquy about pre-existing conditions, the contributors to the cost of health care, etc, fueled by lots of wine and ending in the need for Medicare for All if we don’t let Obamacare do what it was designed to do.

Business executive: “So why does it need to be so complicated? Why can’t folks just pay for insurance?”

Me: Sigh. “Excuse me, I’m going inside for a bit. Can I bring you anything?”

It is difficult to discuss health system reform with people not closely engaged in care delivery. Most people have interfaced with the care delivery system and so believe they know how best to fix it. Most people consume under $300 worth of healthcare annually but don’t question the opportunity cost of having access (over $17,000 annually for a private insurance plan). Most people are thrilled when told of a negative test (“Congratulations, it’s not cancer”) but don’t question whether the test should have been done in the first place. Airplane crashes put the focus on the safety of the aviation industry because 300 people dying at a time is newsworthy. Losing 4000 people annually in Alabama to premature heart disease because of a poorly performing health system is a yawner.

In any given year, only 5% or fewer of the US population use the healthcare system for something serious like cancer Most folks who interface the care delivery system (make a doctors appointment) do so for a self-limited illness. They come in either because a) they want assurances they are not going to die and want to feel better or b) they need a note for work. From a survey done in 2014, when a person seeks care here is what they want:

  1. Be seen without an appointment within 30 minutes any time of the day or night for $0 to include labs and x-rays done on site.
  2. Have the same person see them every time and have them spend unlimited time explaining symptoms
  3. Have this magic 24/365 office close to home (next door is preferable).

Business executives, I suspect, pretty much get this type of care. Michael Jackson, for example, had his own cardiologist. Access costs money. In corporations the CEO tends to have the same insurance as the lowest wage earner. What happens when a large corporation pays for care that includes this type of access? The executive may not be worried by the high premium (average is over $12,000 annually for a family plan) and additional company cost ($5000). The low wage worker, on the other hand, might be willing to trade immediate access for better food or housing choices but isn’t often given the choice. Obamacare was designed, in part, to put the brakes on healthcare inflation.

In states where the Affordable Care Act has been fully implemented more employers are paying for health care and more people are covered by other types of coverage. As more people have ended up on public plans (Medicare and Medicaid) health care inflation has reduced. The number of bankruptcies due to medical conditions have fallen precipitously.

Despite all of the rhetoric, it appears that the system reforms put in place by the Obama administration are working. In an essay in Vox, Mae Rice points out that spending some money on a small luxury like Starbucks every day can lead to enhanced responsibility. We, as a society, have a responsibility to people like her. Not to ask her for her Starbucks money. Not to blame her for failing to save for a catastrophic illness that is unanticipatable. Not to ask her to be a prisoner at a minimum wage job so her CEO can get 24/7/365 access to any specialist she wants. We have a responsibility to provide access to quality healthcare at a reasonable cost. Although not perfect, Obamacare is moving us in that direction. As a society, this is a responsibility all of us, including business executives, should take very seriously.

 

toles500

Me: Why is your blood sugar so high?

Patient: Couldn’t afford the insulin

Me: But you have insurance and it is on your insurances formulary. I thought you told me it cost you $30 a vial

Patient: Yeah, this time it costs me $150. And ya know, I gotta eat….

A couple of years ago I was fixated for a while on the cost of insulin. Mostly, I fixated on why it was so expensive. From 2012 to 2016 the price of insulin doubled and to have Type 1 Diabetes meant someone (the patient, the insurance company, the government) had to pay on average $18,500 a year. In other words, without insurance they have to budget to buy a new car every year, with no trade-in.

Having Type 1 Diabetes is basically like having a birth defect. The prospective patient is at risk to losing the ability to manufacture insulin from birth with exposure to a certain virus being the trigger for this to actually occur. The only treatment for folks who acquire Type 1 Diabetes is insulin replacement therapy. Without it, they die. Well, we are pretty sure they do. Since insulin was discovered in the 1920s it has been unethical to withhold insulin as a medical experiment from Type 1 diabetics. Prior to that, by literally starving the patient to death, you could buy them up to a year. Since the 1920s, we have had insulin. The discoverers sold the patent for a dollar a piece so that humanity could benefit.

Type 1 diabetes is a great disease (as diseases go) for a doctor to treat. The body has a deficiency. Replacement is relatively straightforward. If the patient is cooperative with regime (checks blood sugar regularly, administers insulin to keep sugar down) he or she can expect to live into their 8th decade. The dad of my best friend growing up was a Type 1 diabetic and he survived his into his 70s with diabetes only to die in Katrina. Though special diets may help and exercise may help, what is required is insulin. Without it, ingested sugars and fats convert to ketoacids instead of energy for the body and then death happens. Almost always when someone with Type 1 diabetes has ketoacids in their blood they are either insulin deficient (“well, doc, I meant to take my insulin this morning but…”) or have another illness that has increased their insulin requirements.

Which brings us to the cost of insulin. The prices, it seems, keep going up. For us non-diabetics it would be like charging us for air. Not only that, but charging us extra after exercise for the extra oxygen we extract. Why is it going up? To find out I spent a lot of time reading about our really crappy system of pharmacy distribution and payment systems. Remember the corner pharmacist? Now he is a pharmacy benefits manager. They control the prices the pharmacies have to pay for drug prior to distribution and control what the patient pays (the money they make off of this is called “the spread.” They make drug companies give rebates to get medications on the formulary that they rarely share with patients. They overcharge patients for medications and pocket the difference. They make pharmacists sign contracts that forbid them to tell the patient that the $40 lisinopril prescription is available for $4 at Walmart. They make consumers use coupons to artificially inflate the prices even more.

As much as I wanted to blame this new middleperson arrangement for the rising prices (and it can be blamed for the fluctuating prices), PBMs are not the cause. The insurers try to convince us that it isn’t them but a lack of personal responsibility. Drug companies try to say that cutting edge medicines are expensive and Americans deserve only the best.  Neither of these are true. As was reported in Vox:

Luo, the paper’s lead author, doesn’t find the “cost of innovation” argument very convincing. In his research, he’s come across many examples of the same insulin products that have been continuously available for years without improvements, and yet their price tags have gone up at a much higher rate than inflation.

“The list price of these products are already out of reach for most Americans living with diabetes — in some cases over $300 a vial,” he said. “It is also strange to see Humulin still priced at over $150 a vial considering this product was first sold in the US in 1982.”

In other words, drug companies are flat out raising prices. Why are they are doing it? Because they can. There are only 3 companies that make insulin, the products are not generic (small improvements patented every 10 years to keep a new patent), and oddly the prices are the same across all the companies.

So what can we do to stop it? As a physician, there are a couple of things I can do. There are “human” insulins that is relatively cheap (NPH and Regular, alone and in combination) that I can write for my Type 2 diabetic patients. In theory this would, over time, drive the price down if we all did it. I can (and do) only use formulary medications whenever possible, even though it means switching several times a year at times. As a patient, consider using cheaper “human” insulin if you have Type 2 diabetes. Talk to your doctor about making the switch. Join in the protests over the cost of insulin. Let policymakers know that access to life sustaining hormones should be a right. To paraphrase Martin Niemoller, first they come for your hormones….

Resident: The patient is a 45 year old black male…

Me (interrupting): I really don’t like identifying people by the color of their skin. What else do you know about him?

Resident: The patient is a 45 year old automobile mechanic who is here for a recheck of his diabetes…

Me (interrupting): Who lives where?

Resident: I don’t know, Mobile. Can I please just finish?

Me: Not until you tell me where he lives and why it’s important

Resident (whispering to another resident): is there another attending I can talk to?

Our current mayor, when he was elected, established an outcome for his “mayorship.” He stated, unequivocally, that he wanted Mobile Alabama to be the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020. Well, OK, in my objective writing classes we were taught to focus on SMART objectives. That is, they had to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time oriented. For example: We want to to be the most family friendly city based on the “family friendly poll” that is administered by the governor’s office twice a year and includes a scientific sample families in Mobile, Huntsville. Montgomery, and Birmingham. Yeah, forgot that step, I’m afraid.

What should it mean to be the most “family friendly” city in Alabama? Mobile is a geographically large city. Bordered by a river on one side, the city stretches 12 miles in one direction and almost 10 miles in another. Does “family friendly” mean parks? We got some, but not a lot. Does it mean churches? We got a lot of those. I bet it is neither one of those. I would bet, if you ask people, they want it to mean a good life for their children. I bet people would say “I want my kids to be happy, healthy, and successful.” How are we doing with that?

Turns out, the federal government keeps statistics on the “healthy” part at the neighborhood level. You can use a tool (such as this) to find out if you live in a healthy neighborhood or an unhealthy one. If you live in an unhealthy one not only are you doomed to a likely premature death but so are your children, In Alabama the healthiest neighborhood provided it’s denizens with a life expectancy of 88 years (an affluent suburb of Birmingham) to 63 years (an area of Montgomery that Martin Luther King marched through 50 years ago). Mobile’s neighborhoods range from a high of 81 to a low of 63.

The neighborhood with the lowest life expectancy in Mobile is not that far from my house. I treat several patients who live there. What sets the neighborhood apart? The people are poor. They work, just not at affluent jobs. One in four are uninsured. One in five report poor mental health and/or poor physical health. A baby born in this neighborhood can only expect to live to 65. A baby born in the mayor’s neighborhood? 82.

How can the mayor improve the health of this neighborhood? There are some simple fixes that could happen tomorrow. An effective bus route through the neighborhood, for example. A find a way to subsidize a source of fresh vegetables and fruits that is less than two miles away. Offer community support services at the neighborhood elementary school.

I believe that family friendly means that our children, who have not yet made any choices, have an equal chance at success. By that metric we have a ways to go by 2020/

 

Image result for keep away cartoon

I have resisted from writing posts on this blog because it seemed that I was always saying the same thing. To people who wanted to stay away from my services I would offer:

  • Be born to healthy, wealthy parents
  • Live around healthy, wealthy neighbors
  • Pick the least processed food option to eat
  • Stay physically active
  • Stay in school until you get an advanced degree
  • Get and keep a job in air conditioning
  • Don’t take up cigarettes, drink alcohol only in moderation, avoid illicit drugs
  • Avoid narcotics for pain unless for surgical pain and then only for 3 days.

The other thing that people on some level realize is that that even if they do this things they will end up needing access to the healthcare system eventually. If you know anyone with cancer, who has been in a car accident, or any octogenarian you know this to be true.  Once you realize that, despite your best efforts, disease occurs randomly then health insurance becomes a necessity.

With the passage of Obamacare, I no longer needed to explain to people that not all health insurance was created equal. Obamacare required coverage for preexisting conditions, improved healthcare quality, and dictated what must be included in health insurance policies. In other words, people who buy Obamacare policies now know what they are getting.

Except that Obamacare is dead. The Trump administration just approved short term, limited duration health benefits.  Trumpcare is the new thing.

The new Trumpcare plans will be cheap for people who are healthy enough to qualify. But they don’t cover much. If you find you’re having a baby, or need a weekend stay at a hospital, or even something as exotic as prescription drugs, you’re out of luck. The Journal editorial page insists this will all be fine, because “not everyone needs all benefits,” and also, “[t]he HHS rule also stipulates that issuers must prominently display a notice that the coverage isn’t compliant with the Affordable Care Act. Everyone will know what they’re buying.”

If you buy a Trumpcare policy here is exactly what you will be buying:

You may not be able to get one. Companies selling Trumpcare policies can elect to limit their policies to people in good health. They can do this by discriminating based on health status, gender, age, and any other factors that predicts that you might actually USE the policy. The discrimination can be outright denial, very high premiums, or excluding coverage for pre-existing conditions. You might get insurance but not for your heart condition after you went to the doctor for palpitations, for example.

So you get a policy, now what? Hope you read the fine print. Obamacare has 10 elements that must be provided for it to be called health insurance. Trumpcare policies, on the other hand, typical do not cover maternity care, prescription drugs, mental health care, preventive care, or other essential benefits. Don’t like the $5,000 Obamacare Silver plan out of pocket limit? Trumpcare has limits as high as $20,000. This means that of the 5,000 adults cared for in our hospital this past year, Trumpcare would be of little or no help to over half of them.

That’s OK. People need to live healthier. You intend to only use it if you get, say, bad cancer or a in a terrible car wreck. Funny story, that. Policy caps are as low as $250,000. Which means that another 70 people would pay their $20,000 and then have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket because they were TOO sick.

Buying a Trumpcare policy, then, might be cheaper and might even make you feel better. At least until you get sick.

 

 

 

Image result for Lowndes county alabama
A United Nations official arrives in Alabama this week to investigate poverty, inequality and “barriers to political participation” in the state
Alston will spend Thursday in Lowndes County, where he will be looking at issues like health care, access to clean and safe drinking water, and sanitation.
The Guardian reported in September on a study exposing the fact that a small number of people have tested positive for hookworm – a parasitic disease found in impoverished areas around the world – in Lowndes County.
 
What he’ll find if he looks-only 30% of the citizens of the county have functional septic tanks, 1 in 3 live in poverty and 1 on 5 will have no health insurance. That’s OK because he’ll find only 2 doctors, no dentists, no psychiatrists, He’ll find that 1 out of every 100 babies die before they reach a year old (worse than most developING countries) and one in two expectant mothers have little if any prenatal care.
 
Coincidentally, he’ll find that Lowndes County has one of the lowest median property tax rates in the country, Lowndes County is ranked 2682nd of the 3143 counties for property taxes as a percentage of median income..
 
He’ll find a county where slaves outnumbered their masters by 2 to one in 1860 and the population was 26000. He’ll find a county where blacks outnumber whites now by 3 to one but the population is now only 11,000. He’ll find a county where 1 in 5 are living off social security and one in 10 have no car. 
In other words, he’ll find the Alabama people think of when you say the word Alabama.

Today, Mobile has set its sights beyond historic racial inequality, social inequity, and environmental disasters. Residents, local government, and community-based organizations are forging a consensus on what Mobile’s future should look like, from building an economically strong downtown to providing more easily accessible options for physical activity. Increasingly, community engagement and cross-sectoral partnerships are having a visible impact.

RWJF Culture of Health Sentinel Community Snapshot Mobile Al November 2016

I have to admit when I saw this I was a little taken aback. Tied up with the implementation of a new Electronic Health Record and planning a move to a new space, I figured I must have missed an e-mail or something. Mobile was one of 30 cities chosen by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation from around the country. They were going to watch us as we developed “a culture of health.” I thought to myself “this is great” and “wow, what a big job.” I only hope that someone has been put in charge that is up to the task.

Because, as it turns out, a “culture of health” doesn’t just mean that we have good doctors and hospitals:

Think of social determinants as the root-causes of health and disease.

Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring.

And per the report we have a ways to go:

  • The median household income in Mobile is $38,644 per year, compared with $43,511 for Alabama and $53,482 for the United States (Figure 1).3 Inequality between the city’s black and white residents is striking, with black residents earning about half the median income of white ones. If you are poor you cannot afford good food, educational activities, or safe housing. These all are associated with poor health outcomes.
  • While more likely to have some college education or an associate’s degree in 2014 than they were in 2010 (Figure 2), the percentage of black residents who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 declined from 2010, despite increases in higher education among white residents. Educational attainment is always associated with better health outcomes. 
  • Teen pregnancy rates in Mobile County are 57 per 1,000 for women aged 13 to 19, compared with 47 per 1,000 in Alabama and 20 per 1,000 in the United States. Teen pregnancy is associated with a lack of knowledge regarding contraception and a lack of access to effective long acting contraceptive methods.
  • The county’s mortality outcomes are higher than the national average for preventable noncommunicable diseases, such as heart diseases, cancer, and diabetes. This reflects limited physical activity, limited opportunities for physical activity, and a very high level of obesity.
  • The city has an uninsured rate of 17%, which is more than 2% higher than the national average.

The report is very complementary of the Mayor’s “One Mobile” initiative and the Three Mile Creek park development.

Unfortunately, the community piece that was cited as most important in transforming our community was “Live Better Mobile.” From the press conference in 2012:

A “Live Better Mobile” program was unveiled today during a news conference. It’s aimed at creating public awareness focusing on three efforts – achieve healthy weights, prevent teen pregnancy, and quit tobacco.

The focus for the 37 community partners participating in the program is on prevention, nutrition and exercise.

“If we’re going to have a significant impact on health and well-being of our citizens, it’s going to take a community effort,” Dr. Bert Eichold of the Mobile County Health Department, said.

The group’s website is now dead. Their FaceBook page hasn’t been updated in a year.

So, Mobile, RWJF and the country are watching us. For the next five years they will be following the health of Mobilians. Are we up to the scrutiny? From the comments:

Talk from the fat cats is cheap. Want to encourage people in Mobile to Exercise? Give them a place to get out and exercise. Spend $70,000 on a weekly Ciclovia event. Pave that Rails-2-Trails from Prichard to Citronelle. Spend a money to construct Exercise Trails instead of spending money constructing Airbus Roads which don’t even have bicycle lanes.

 I just hope someone is in charge…

 

JW is a 33 year old black female with sickle cell anemia (SS) who presents with an acute pain crisis. This is her third admission in the last 6 months and she is a “bounce-back” having just been discharged 7 days ago. Her past medical history is pertinent for multiple admission included 2 ICU admissions for acute chest in the past couple of years. She is here today for pain control and is on Dilaudid 1 mg every 2 hours

Intern presentation at morning report

 

Sickle cell “disease” is an example of a chronic illness. It is actually a family of genetic disorders with the most well known being sickle cell anemia.  People who have the disease inherit a substitution on chromosome 11 from both parents. Folks who are unfortunate enough to inherit this disorder are destined to suffer:

The lack of tissue oxygen can cause attacks of sudden, severe pain, called pain crises. These pain attacks can occur without warning, and a person often needs to go to the hospital for effective treatment.

The red cell sickling and poor oxygen delivery can also cause organ damage. Over a lifetime, SCD can harm a person’s spleen, brain, eyes, lungs, liver, heart, kidneys, penis, joints, bones, or skin.

 

This is the medical condition. As a doctor, we give pain medicine to make the pain go away, we give antibiotics to treat the infection, we treat the low blood count with transfusions…in other words, we do what we can. What we can, for some patients, isn’t enough. This is one example of a chronic illnesses that is not curable but instead is characterized by folks getting better and getting worse. What we in medicine call “exacerbations and remission.” There are many other such illnesses.

Sickle cell disease is also characterized by what we call “variable penetrance.” Although the science of sickle cell is easy (Sickle hemoglobin differs from normal hemoglobin by a single amino acid: valine replaces glutamate at position 6 on the surface of the beta chain. This creates a new hydrophobic spot. In a sickled red blood cell, valine 6 (beta chain) binds to a different hydrophobic patch) the body’s response to these sickled cells is dependent on a lot of other things. Some people with this will have a problem with pain only once a year. Others (about 20%) will struggle on a daily basis with pain, fatigue, and the consequences of damage to other organs as a consequence of the randomness of genetic inheritance. This is also true for a number of chronic illnesses. Some folks, for example, have diabetes for years and have no problems. Other folks develop kidney and heart disease almost immediately. How someone reacts to their disease is also, in a major way, genetically determined.

The real consequences of chronic illnesses, for those who are affected the most, are an inability to work and dependence on a healthcare system. Inability to work because, well, people who are tired, in pain, or short of breath all the time make terrible employees. Dependence on the healthcare system because without a job many have no food and can’t pay rent. If there is no food at home or even no home to go to, people with a poorly controlled chronic illness can almost always get admitted to the hospital. Poorly controlled chronic illnesses are the reason 1% of Americans account for 20% of healthcare costs and 5% account for 50% of all costs. Much of that cost is generated by recurrent, preventable hospital admissions that are as much a consequence of an untenable living situation as they are to medical conditions. A sickle cell patient without money for pain medication, for example, will use the emergency room and likely get admitted. The same for a diabetic without money for insulin.

The Affordable Care Act, as written, forced all of us to care about people with chronic illness. Insurance companies would have to give them insurance. Not-sick people would  have to pay for the care provided to those with chronic illnesses though their insurance premiums. Our society would start to feel pressure to move some of the money we spend on healthcare (expensive doctors, expensive drugs, too many needless procedures) into value for patients with uncontrollable chronic illness (food security, supportive housing, transportation assistance, self management support, legal assistance). The challenge in designing the ACA was in figuring out how to cut costs, wisely and fairly, for the disastrously ill and preventing diseases before they become chronic.

We as a practice elected about a two years  ago to work to provide value-based care to our patients with chronic, expensive illnesses. We wanted to reduce avoidable hospitalizations. Mostly because it was the right thing to do but we were encouraged to do so by our healthcare enterprise. They want us to figure out how to make money from “not hospitalizing” a patient.

We changed the way we practice. We employ a care manager to help our patients obtain needed transportation and housing when they are unable to afford such. We employ behavioral health specialists to help patients to learn self-management techniques which will reduce their dependance on the health care system. We use pharmacist to make sure medications are appropriately managed. Physician work on facilitating good care and making sure therapeutic goals are met. It is entirely possible that the patient who suffers from this severe form of sickle cell anemia would be presented to me in this manner:

JW is a 33 year old unemployed woman with hemoglobin SS who suffers from chronic pain and is unable to work full time. She is unable to afford a car and has to rely on public transportation. She lives in supportive housing. Her pain is a 4/10 with her chronic pain medication today. The behavioral health specialists are in the room now, working with her on non-pharmacologic adjuncts to pain. The Care Coordinator is working to get her transportation to her specialty appointments as well as make sure she qualifies for food assistance. She believes that with an increase in her oral pain meds she can overcome this so I will give her a small increase to last for the next several weeks. My nurse will give her a call in 3 days to see how she is feeling.

Despite the current administrations decision not to enforce the health care law (explained here) our intent is to continue to practice medicine and teach others to practice medicine in this manner until we are directed to stop. It is our belief that keeping people out of the hospital is better, always. I hope America feels the same.

Archives