America has a health care paradox

We have a real paradox in American healthcare. On the one hand we have exceptionally well educated and well trained providers who are committed to our care. We are the envy of the world for our biomedical research prowess, funded largely by the National Institutes of Health and conducted across the county in universities and medical schools. The pharmaceutical industry continuously brings forth life saving and disease altering medications. The medical device industry is incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial.  The makers of diagnostic equipment such as CAT scans and hand held ultrasounds are equally productive.

A few examples.  The science of genomics is revolutionizing medical care in profound ways such as producing targeted cancer drugs, predicting later onset of cardiac disease, offering prognostic data to guide cancer treatment, rapidly identifying a bacteria and its antibiotic susceptibility and suggesting how our diet can actually impact our genes through the science of nutragenomics.

The pharmaceutical industry has brought us the likes of statins to reduce cholesterol, drugs to prevent blood clotting, and the targeted therapies for cancer. The device industry has created, for example, a potpourri of new approaches that have transformed cardiac care. These include angioplasty, stents, pacemakers, intracardiac defibrillators and now even the ability to insert a prosthetic aortic valve through a catheter rather than doing it via open surgery.  And we can now noninvasively image organs in incredible detail and learn about physiology with molecular imaging.

So we can be appropriately awed and proud and pleased at what is available when needed for our care.

But, on the other hand, we have a dysfunctional health care delivery system.

Our current delivery system focuses on acute medical problems where it is reasonably effective. But it works poorly for most chronic medical illnesses and it costs far too much. When the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, was asked why he robbed banks he replied “that’s where the money is.” In healthcare the money is in chronic illnesses – diabetes with complications, cardiac diseases such as heart failure, cancer and neurologic diseases. These consume about 75-85% of all dollars spent on medical care. So we need to focus there.

These chronic illnesses are increasing in frequency at a very rapid rate. They are largely (although certainly not totally) preventable. Overeating a non-nutritious diet, lack of exercise, chronic stress, and 20% still smoking are the major predisposing causes of these chronic illnesses. Obesity is now a true epidemic with one-third of us overweight and one-third of us frankly obese. The result is high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated blood glucose and toxins that lead to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, chronic lung and kidney disease and cancer.

And once any of these chronic diseases develops, it usually persists for life (of course some cancers are curable but not so diabetes or heart failure). These are complex diseases to treat and expensive to treat – an expense that continues for the rest of the person’s life.

What is needed is aggressive preventive approaches and, for those with a chronic illness, a multi-disciplinary approach, one that has a committed physician coordinator. Providers (and I refer here mostly to primary care physicians), unfortunately, do not give really adequate preventive care in most cases. And they generally do not spend the time needed to coordinate the care of those with chronic illness – which is absolutely essential to assure good quality at a reasonable cost.

When a patient is sent for extra tests, imaging or specialists visits the costs go up exponentially and the quality does not rise with the costs. Indeed it often falls. But primary care physicians are in a non-sustainable business model with today’s reimbursement systems so they find they just do no have enough time for care coordination or more than the basics of preventive care.

So our paradox is that we have the providers, the science, the drugs, the diagnostics and devices that we need for patient care. But we have a new type of disease – complex, chronic illness, mostly preventable, for which we have not established good methods of prevention nor do we care for them adequately once the disease develops. And all of this is exacerbated by an insurance system that puts the incentives in the wrong places. The result is a sicker population, episodic care and expenses that are far greater than necessary.

America has a health care paradox   Stephen C. Schimpff, MD is an internist, professor of medicine and public policy, former CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center and consults for the US Army, medical startups and Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of The Future of Medicine – Megatrends in Healthcare and The Future of Health Care Delivery, from which this post is adapted. 

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