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Wasted health care

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I kind of owe an article on how I would cut government health care expenditures in half by improving the efficiency of care. Unfortunately if I write everything I want to write, that article is going to be a long time in coming. So here's a "short" article on why I think a large fraction of all medical expenditures in the U.S. - like about half - are probably waste and could be cut out completely without affecting the quality of care, even with no other improvements in efficiency.

The first thing to understand is that the large majority of medical expenditures are not on things that happen to the young - where "young" means roughly "under 50". In fact, 75% of U.S. medical expenditures are on chronic diseases[1], which primarily affect old people - like my mother, who at 77 is on 7 different kinds of medication for things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and the side effects of others of the medications. And she's relatively healthy for her age! So if you're 30 or 40 years old, the vast majority of health care expenditures are on things that you've likely never even had to think about.

The second thing to understand is that the medical establishment has little knowledge of what causes these diseases. Rather, they treat symptoms. As one doctor puts it:

What would be the typical treatment of cardiovascular disease? First they check the cholesterol. High cholesterol over 200, they put you on cholesterol lowering drugs and what does it do? It shuts off your CoQ10. What does CoQ10 do? It is involved in the energy production and protection of little energy furnaces in every cell, so energy production goes way down.... One of the best treatments for a weak heart is CoQ10 for congestive heart failure. But medicine has no trouble shutting CoQ10 production off so that they can treat a number (cholesterol figure)....

In almost all cases if you treat a symptom, you are going to make the disease worse because the symptom is there as your body’s attempt to heal itself. The medical profession calls the symptoms diseases.... They treat what they think is the disease which is just a symptom.

If you are going to treat any disease, you need to get to the root of the disease.... But the problem is that we don’t know what the root is, or we haven’t. They know what it is in many other areas of science, but the problem is that medicine really isn’t a science, it is a business.[2]


As Gary Taubes[3] puts it, doctors want to do something for their patients now, not do years of research to figure out what the right thing to do is. Regarding metabolic syndrome, which accounts for most of that chronic disease expenditure, he points out:

The urge to simplify a complex scientific situation so that physicians can apply it and their patients and the public embrace it has taken precedence over the scientific obligation of presenting the evidence with relentless honesty. The result is an enormous enterprise dedicated in theory to determining the relationship between diet, obesity, and disease, while dedicated in practice to convincing everyone involved, and the lay public, most of all, that the answers are already known and always have been - an enterprise, in other words, that purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion.[4]


So basically most of that 75% of U.S. medical expenditure on chronic diseases doesn't work and likely makes things worse. If we could just resist the impulse to "do something, anything" when a problem came up, we could save that money with no impact on actual quality of health care.

And yes, we could also make things better while still saving the money. But that's a subject for another post. This one is just on saving the money.

[1] See http://genomebiology.com/2006/7/2/104 figure 1.
[2] http://nourishedmagazine.com.au/blog/articles/insulin-resistance-the-real-culprit
[3] See my previous post at http://psychohist.livejournal.com/40106.html for more information on Gary Taubes.
[4] Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories, pp 451-452.
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On October 21st, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC), enugent commented:
I find it hard to swallow that metabolic syndrome accounts for two-thirds of chronic disease expenditure. Your reference [1] shows spending for diabetes, congestive heart failure, respiratory disease, hypertension, and cancer. Even if you claim that metabolic syndrome is responsible for essentially all of the first four (which seems unlikely), spending on those according to the chart adds up to $100-$200 billion of the $1.2 trillion spent on "chronic disease." Where's the other trillion?

Further, even if you cut out the drugs used to treat "metabolic syndrome," you're not going to cut out all the spending on it. Your reference [2] is talking about how he treats various people with problems that he believes stem from insulin resistance, but he's still treating them and charging for office visits and lab tests to monitor their insulin and various vitamin levels. Their medical spending on these problems may have dropped, but it hasn't dropped to zero by any means.
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On October 21st, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
I don't think wasted treatment is limited to metabolic syndrome; the Taubes quote is about metabolic syndrome but the indictment of the approach of the medical establishment applies more generally.

I do think that if 60% of the top five categories - diabetes, congestive heart failure, and hypertension are the ones I'd include - are attributable to metabolic syndrome, it's likely that somewhere around 60% of the categories not listed also are. Again, I do think other categories also include a lot of money spent on treatment that doesn't actually work.

In this post I'm only talking about saving money and not about improving health care. The saving money part does include dropping the costs of the present useless care to zero by dropping those treatments entirely. Finding out if there are other treatments that are not useless comes under "improving health care". I think that doctor's techniques are likely to be less useless than present treatments, but I don't think they're at all the most cost effective approach.
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On October 21st, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC), enugent replied:
I still don't see how you can say, for example, that diabetes treatments "don't work." I might be willing to concede that hypertension drugs cause other problems in order to avoid a risk that it primarily statistical, but millions of diabetics are kept alive daily by appropriate and timely administration of insulin. Even if this is not the best possible treatment for them, it seems incredibly irresponsible and cruel to say that we should just save money by not treating diabetics at all, because we're only treating a symptom instead of a root cause. Do you really feel that your own mother should not be treated for diabetes, even if it hastens her death?
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On October 22nd, 2009 02:17 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
I still don't see how you can say, for example, that diabetes treatments "don't work."

Allow me explain further, then. Note that there are two kinds of diabetes, now called type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 diabetes is generally developed in childhood and results from the patient's inability to produce insulin. Insulin has been shown to prevent death from diabetes in controlled experiments, so insulin treatment does, in fact, work. Thus, insulin treatment for type 1 diabetes should not be discarded as one of the treatments that "don't work". Fortunately this would have little financial impact, as only 5-10% of diabetes cases in the U.S. are type 1, not to mention that insulin no longer has patent protection and is thus cheap. As far as I know, type 1 diabetes is not related to metabolic syndrome.

Type 2 diabetes is generally developed in adulthood and is due, not to lack of insulin, but to insulin "resistance": the muscle, fat, and liver tissues that normally absorb blood sugar in response to insulin no longer do so.

Now here we get into how medicine becomes religion. We actually do know what causes type 2 diabetes, and how to resolve it, or at least we did in the 1950s. The cause is excessive blood sugar, which comes primarily from dietary carbohydrate, with a small contribution from gluconeogenesis of protein. The solution is a low carbohydrate, high fat diet. Exercise also helps, as it expends blood sugar stored as glycogen in the muscles, but diet is the most effective treatment.

Unfortunately, such a diet runs heretically contrary to the AHA ex cathedra wisdom - unsupported by the evidence - that fat is evil. As a result, doctors end up recommending extremely low calorie diets to get at least some carbohydrate restriction with a politically correct diets. And since those low calorie diets are nearly impossible to adhere to, they end up prescribing a bunch of expensive medicine that might help reduce blood sugar, but may also hasten complete insulin dependence, along with other deleterious side effects.

So my answer in the case of my mother is this: I do not believe that dropping her diabetes medication would hasten her death. Indeed, if anything, I think the medication itself is what's hastening her death. When I saw her a couple months ago, she had weird bruises all over the the backs of her hands, because that's one of the side effects of one of the diabetes drugs if you accidentally get sun exposure. And she still has to restrict herself to 1000 calories per day, which is probably the only part of the regimen which is actually helping her.

I will admit to further empirical evidence that the medicine doesn't help, though. Last year, she was seeing a doctor who evidently understood what Rosedale understood, and had her on a 1000 calorie carbohydrate restricted diet - and no medication. She was more healthy, more active, and didn't have the weird bruises.

Unfortunately, that doctor isn't available any more - so now she sees a doctor who probably makes his Mercedes payments by making sure his patients have to come back to see him regularly, even if that's not the way he thinks of it.



Edited at 2009-10-22 02:18 am (UTC)
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On October 22nd, 2009 03:36 am (UTC), enugent replied:
Well, of course there are actually more than two types of diabetes - I had the third most common, gestational diabetes, which generally acts like type 2. Insulin was effective for it, as insulin is effective for many type 2s. Insulin is a somewhat scary medication, as it is easier to experience dangerous blood-sugar lows on it than on some of the oral drugs, plus of course most people don't like giving themselves injections. But it does work. (There's some evidence that it can even send early Type 2 into remission.)

And even if your mother went off the drugs and just followed a low-carb diet, she would still require monitoring and testing to be sure that she was achieving adequate control with whatever regimen she was using. If she wasn't achieving good control, perhaps because her diet wasn't good enough or her disease was just too advanced, we'd still have to pay for her complications. Amputations aren't cheap. You just can't drop those costs to zero, even if you shift them around. I agree that more appropriate diet interventions could probably reduce them, but I'd be surprised if you could reduce them by more than half, and cutting half of the costs associated with 60% of chronic conditions (assuming arguendo that your numbers are right) isn't going to get you to a 50% reduction in medical spending.
— On October 22nd, 2009 06:29 am (UTC), psychohist posted a reply · Expand
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On October 22nd, 2009 03:39 am (UTC), enugent replied:
Incidentally, we did try to control my GDM with a low-carb diet before adding insulin. I could get good blood sugar control during the day, but my fasting sugar was always too high in the mornings. I had to add a long-acting insulin at bedtime to get that under control.
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On October 22nd, 2009 12:09 am (UTC), jaedian commented:
I am not clear that so many treatments don't work at all. The problem we have is that so many treatments work some of the time and we don't know how to distinguish who they will work on. Like cancer treatments - even if the success rate is low, there are some people treatments do help and we don't know how to tell who. I would like to see more gene testing for this, so we can give treatments to the people it will do good. We are moving in this direction.

And it is hard to NOT do anything, either as a doctor or as a patient. Maybe better education on that front would be useful? I don't think it is doctors being evil and trying to turn a profit. I think doctors were trained to heal/help people and it is so frustrating to say that you can't do anything for someone, so you try treatments that aren't likely to work just to be doing something. (doing nothing is a hard skill)

We also have a lot of issues performing medical tests. It takes many studies to really see if something works. And it is really hard to tease out the variables the way we do the studies. In addition I think the outcomes we measure are not always the right ones. Sometimes that is for ease in designing the trials. Instead of measuring if something reduces the mortality rate, it is easier to see if it shrinks the tumor, or improves 5 year survival rates. Neither of these is as good. I was looking at some research on prostate cancer that suggested the 5 year survival rate was bogus. It makes it look like we are doing so much better in the US because our 5 year survival rate is better than Britain. But that is because we diagnose (and often treat) earlier than in Britain. But the data suggestion people are overall dying at the same ages whether they get early treatment or not. In this case the "5 year" survival rate is an artifact produced by early diagnosis (the 5 year clock starts ticking earlier in the US)

I do think some of the science has merit. (not sure if it all does, but I did read the 2nd article which is interesting) The problem is, it is very hard to get people to change their diets. (we have made it even worse with all the lame info out there, like the politically motivated food pyramid) So I am not sure what you do then. Certainly it would be awesome if we can design medications that go after the underlying insulin resistance. (and I think we are with reservatol and others like it) But diet changes has proven to be a hard medicine to administer.

Very interesting discussion though. I do need to read Taubes book. (on my list) I do think the whole low-fat diet fad really messed up a lot of people, and caused a lot of weight gain. (since it was low-fat, high sugar, carb heavy)

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On October 22nd, 2009 05:52 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
It's true that some cancer treatments do seem to work on some people, and I wouldn't claim it's possible to drop them all without affecting health. However, that doesn't mean they all work, especially when you factor in the health costs that many of them have. In addition, I think it's questionable as to whether we should be doing treatments based on what just seems to work; it would be better to do some trials to identify what actually does work.

I agree the doctors are not consciously being evil; it's more a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. I also agree that it's psychologically difficult not to do anything. I do think that the psychological part of the problem could largely be dealt with by good science: that is, well designed experimental trials, as you suggest, rather than poorly designed trials or nonexperimental observational studies. If we had solid science providing a better idea of what did and did not work, I think it would be easier to stick to the "does work" category.

Though it goes beyond the topic a bit, I think a properly designed health insurance system has a part to play here. Right now part of the problem is that the only actors who have an incentive to do experimental trials are the drug companies, and they have incentives to set up the trials in such a way that they can only be used to prove that drugs work, not to prove that other methods might work. What we really need is a health insurance system tied to individuals rather than corporations, which would give the insurance companies an incentive to look at all options and pick the best ones for their patients. Of course it would have to be competitive so patients could abandon insurance companies that simply chose to minimize treatment irrespective of effectiveness.

Diet really gets into the area of improvements, and not just cost reduction. For now, I would just point out that the low fat diet "fad" is not really a fad - it's people paying attention to that bogus food pyramid the government promulgated.
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On October 22nd, 2009 05:45 am (UTC), izmirian commented:
Yeah, there is definitely a lot of treating symptoms and using new drugs before well-designed studies have shown that they are actually useful. I've seen a number of cases where drugs that have been properly controlling symptoms (such as atrial fibrillation) turn out not to actually improve mortality or other health aspects once the more detailed studies are done. If I remember correctly Obama was pushing for several billion dollars for such studies and the Republicans (probably pushed by the drugmakers) were opposing it.
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On October 22nd, 2009 05:59 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
While I do think better science would help, I think the government is exactly the wrong entity to do it. Don't forget that the government is responsible for the food pyramid that gave us the obesity and metabolic syndrome epidemic.

In fact, I don't think any actor with power over the necessary amounts of money has an interest in good science in this area. As noted in my response to jaedian, health insurance companies' interests could be aligned with the patients, but that would require a change that's quite unlikely to happen.
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On October 22nd, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC), izmirian replied:
Well, at least we agree that better science would help. You just don't like the government doing anything :-)

My experience from doing both government-funded research (in grad school) and commercial work is that the government-funded research is actually one of the better ways to get good scientific results. Corporations are very good at marketing their own products, but you can't realistically ask a company why its product might be bad and expect to get a reasonable answer.

I don't know much about the origin of the food pyramid, but I'm guessing that the main problem was lack of good science.
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On October 23rd, 2009 12:40 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
I like the government to stick to things it's good at. Science is not one of those things.

I do agree that corporations don't do science that doesn't have a chance at promoting their products. This is the problem with the drug companies: they are required to do experimental trials, which do prove cause and effect, but the effect may not be something that actually contributes to health, and of course they'll only test drugs as causes, and will not test competing nondrug solutions. This is why health insurance companies' interests would have to be aligned with the insured, rather than with government or corporations, for them to do good science.

The food pyramid is actually a good example of how government makes science bad. It was based on the McGovern committee hearings, which in turn was based on months of interviews of the top nutrition scientists. Those scientists had done lots of government funded science, and lots more government funded science has been done since. However, as you guessed, it was not good science. The key issue here is farm states have disproportionate power in the Senate - McGovern was from a farm state - so the government has an interest in "science" that will promote farm products like grains. It works the same way drug company research does: it promotes the interests of the researcher, not the subjects of the research.

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On October 23rd, 2009 02:00 am (UTC), izmirian replied:
I think you are intermingling government policy decisions based on science with the actual research itself. The government policy decisions are clearly very influenced by different interest groups. It sounds like the McGovern committee hearings were a good example of this.

On the other hand, actual research funded by the government seems quite free of government influence. I'm probably biased because my parents both worked for NIH for many years, but I certainly never saw any government influence in my work or my parents work and never heard of any stories of attempted government meddling from the people I worked with.

But, I'm pretty sure I won't convince you that the government should be doing this research since you are claiming from the outset that the government is not good at science. So, alternatively, do you have a suggestion for a better organization to do the research? As you've pointed out the drug companies are extremely biased and you've volunteered that the insurance industry probably won't be changed to the point where it can do the research legitimately. So is there some other organization that can embark on decade-long medical trials with tens of thousands of subjects, not really caring which way the results turn out. That sounds like the government to me, but I wouldn't be opposed to another group doing the work. I love the work that Consumer Reports does, though they are way too small to take on something like this.
— On October 23rd, 2009 02:09 am (UTC), psychohist posted a reply · Expand
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On October 23rd, 2009 04:45 am (UTC), treptoplax replied:
No, I think there was plenty of good science.

s. Corporations are very good at marketing their own products, but you can't realistically ask a company why its product might be bad and expect to get a reasonable answer.

Yes, exactly. Drug companies will produce 'scientific research' that shows their drugs work (more if it's true, fortunately). Governments will produce 'scientific research' that gets campaign contributions.


I think it's terribly naive to think "Hey, we can bypass all these utopia-complete political-societal-engineering problems with a simple appeal to INFALLIBLE SCIENCE!" You try to scientize the politics, but you'll end up politicizing the science.
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On October 23rd, 2009 07:02 am (UTC), izmirian replied:
"Hey, we can bypass all these utopia-complete political-societal-engineering problems with a simple appeal to INFALLIBLE SCIENCE!" You try to scientize the politics, but you'll end up politicizing the science.

Uh, I didn't mean to glorify science in that manner. But there are cases where scientific research can provide new and useful information. I think everyone is in agreement on that. Warren's original post was saying that and I certainly agree. The remaining 90% of the conversation was all about whether the government or private companies should do the research.

Take for example the issue of Celebrex versus the old school NSAID's like aspirin. I'm not advocating that the government be in charge of developing new drugs like Celebrex. That seems like something that corporations can do much better. But when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of new drugs I think the government is less biased than, in this case, Pfizer. Sure, the government won't be completely free of bias, but it's got to be better than letting the company that developed the drug evaluate it. That's all I'm saying. We got sidetracked into a discussion of whether the government was "bad" at research or not.

We have the NHTSA to test crash safety and I'm happy about that. It's not like I'm naïve about government pressures, but asking GM to tell us how safe its cars are has got to be worse.
— On October 23rd, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC), psychohist posted a reply · Expand
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