Last week Lawton Burns PhD and Mark Pauly PhD of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania published a landmark economic article entitled, “Detecting BS in Health Care.” Yes, you did not read that wrong—the academic paper used the abbreviation “BS” to describe the bull—- in the healthcare industry.
As a practicing physician, I found it to be a fascinating paper, and I recommend you click on the link and read it. The authors begin with a discussion of the art and value of BS detection. They mention that Ernest Hemingway was once asked, “Is there one quality needed to be a good writer, above all others?”
Hemingway replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”
The authors write, “While flat-out dishonesty for short term financial gains is an obvious answer, a more common explanation is the need to say something positive when there is nothing positive to say. . . . The incentives to generate BS are not likely to diminish—if anything, rising spending and stagnant health outcomes strengthen them—so it is all the more important to have an accurate and fast way to detect and deter BS in health care.”
The authors list their Top 10 Forms of BS in Health Care. The first four forms of BS weave a common theme:
- Top-down solutions: High-level executives and top management in the health care industry are supposed to engineer alternative payment models, but nothing has worked to date.
- One-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf: Leadership of industry and government assume one solution will work for multiple organizations, without customization.
- Silver-bullet prescriptions: A “silver bullet” is described as something that will cure all ills, and must be implemented because it been “decided that it is good for you,” Electronic health records (EHRs) are a prime example of a silver-bullet prescription. The federal government pushed the use of EHRs, claiming the systems would reduce costs and improve quality—but Burns and Pauly argue EHRs “eventually raised costs and only mildly touched a few quality dimensions.”
- Follow the guru: We must follow a visionary guru with a mystical revelation about what needs to be done. The authors describe how, in health care, Harvard professor Michael Porter and former CMS (Center of Medicare and Medicaid) administrator Don Berwick launched theories based on population health, and per-capita cost, to little success.
The current U.S. healthcare market is dominated by large corporations, led by businessmen who outline a yellow brick road for physicians to lead patients along. There is minimal effective policy-making from physicians. Healthcare stocks consistently grow in value, with little relationship to an improvement in clinical care, value, or cost. The government is involved as well, as in their mandate for Electronic Health Records (EHRs), a technology change that cost a lot of money, while forging a barrier between clinicians and the patients we are trying to interview, examine, and care for.
Where will the current trends take us? Will businessmen and/or the government prescribe health care? Will more and more computers and machines dominate health care?
Self-driving cars, Siri, Alexa, automated checkouts at Safeway, and IBM’s Watson are technologic realities. Will we someday see a self-driving physician with the voice of Siri and the brains of Watson?
Call that device “Doctor Vita.”
The saga of Doctor Vita, by Rick Novak, arrives in 2019 from All Things That Matter Press.