0 Simple treatments: bad doctors or a bad health system?

The New York Times editorial on September 9, 2012, “Simple treatments ignored”, is a commentary on a report in the September 7 issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)  that many Americans with hypertension (high blood pressure) were not being adequately treated. The Times notes that the study “found that 67 million Americans had high blood pressure and that 31 million of them were being treated with medicines that reduced their blood pressure to a safe level. The remaining 36 million fell into three groups: people who were not aware of their hypertension, people who were aware but were not taking medication, and those who were aware and were treated with medication but still had hypertension.”

This is definitely not a good thing; hypertension is a serious disease that can have devastating results – most obviously in stroke, but also in increasing the risk of heart attack and kidney failure. Also, as the article states, treatment is relatively easy – that is to say, there are drugs that are available for effectively keeping hypertension under control. In fact, so many people are receiving effective treatment that the incidence of bad outcomes, such as stroke, has greatly decreased. The Times editorial, however, creates the impression that much or most of the fault of for lack of treatment is the result of ignorant, incompetent, uncareful (or uncaring) physicians; the reason, they write, is “…mostly because overburdened doctors did not give hypertension high priority.” This is a highly dubious assumption.

The editorial goes on to praise, specifically, the Kaiser Health System for doing a good job of controlling its patients’ blood pressure, and thus reducing the rate of strokes and heart attacks:  “The organization created a hypertension registry to track patients and the care they were getting; eased the burden on doctors by using pharmacists to initiate drug therapy and medical assistants to monitor patients’ progress; made it easy for patients to get free blood pressure checks; and showed doctors how their record on controlling blood pressure compared with others in the system.” This is great.

People should get treated effectively for treatable diseases, and hypertension is certainly one. There are, however, many reasons why they are not always treated, and this problem includes patient as well as provider issues. Hypertension is, on the whole, asymptomatic; it does not cause pain or weakness or even, usually, headaches; thus the sobriquet “silent killer”. The treatments, in addition to drugs, include things like “…weight loss, increased physical activity, lower sodium and alcohol consumption, and stress management,” which require significant effort and commitment on the part of the patient, and are not easy to do.

But, more important, the lessons of Kaiser are not easily translated into the rest of the health system. Kaiser is a very atypical in that it is a vertically-integrated, closed-panel health system. For starters, and it is a very important start, every patient in their panel is insured (though Kaiser) and every patient sees a Kaiser provider. Thus, they control both the coverage and direct care of this population, and they have a large enough scale to do outreach programs to encourage and support people in adopting and maintaining the behaviors listed above. This is, however, not the case for most of the community. Many people are not insured, and many others have insurance that does not cover drugs and other treatments. A variety of factors, some provider related (such as not being able to get an appointment) and others originating from patients’ own decisions (choosing to go to ERs and urgent care centers, and indeed “doctor shopping”), they see different providers. That the US has an uncoordinated health non-system is the key problem, not that "their doctors are asleep at the switch."

The article concludes: “The benefits of reducing high blood pressure — not to mention the cost savings — are obvious. The wonder is that the health care system has done such a bad job of delivering those benefits.” To me the wonder is that we have tolerated not actually having a health system for as long as we have, and that health policy continues to try to address issues of quality of care while ignoring the elephants in the room: that so many people have no coverage or poor coverage, and that reimbursement overwhelmingly rewards intervening once problems have arisen rather than preventing them. That a physician hired by a hospital to inject clot-busters into the brain’s arteries to try to reverse a stroke that has already occurred earns, literally, several times as much as (and works much less than) a primary care physician who treats hypertension (and many other diseases). The reimbursement system is completely inequitable and inappropriate, and the health system is a sick hodge-podge of half measures.

First, we need a health insurance system that covers everyone: Medicare for all. Then we need to reward systems-based and outcomes-based care. Then maybe all of us can see results like Kaiser's.


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