August 7, 2009

Problems with Medical Ethics: Man in the Mirror

In Perimortal Obsession, I noted that a great deal of the work in medical ethics is focused on unusual near-death situations that, though interesting, have limited relevance to the daily practice of medicine. In my last post about the problems in medical ethics, Recruiting, I tried to point out that experts in ethics who were based at big and important institutions and medical schools really have no contact with the practice of medicine as I and tens of thousands of my primary-care colleagues know it. So it’s understandable that they are either unaware of the issues that face me and my patients or maybe they don’t see the importance.

The work that is currently being done in the field of medical ethics is important and interesting. At some point in each of our lives, it may become sadly crucial as we are forced to make a wrenching decision about a baby, a parent, a loved one…or ourselves.

In this series of posts, a theme that’s been repeated is the field's apparent lack of interest in the ethics of primary care. It’s curious to me that this disparity of focus has somehow developed.

But not nearly as curious as the glaring lack of self-reflection amongst those who have made this their work. Who gets to be on an ethics committee? How are members chosen? Do the people who teach ethics to doctors actually see patients every day?

The tasks of ethics committees in academic environments, besides working on perimortal crises, also often involve the important work of protecting patients who are subjects of medical research. (Disclosure: I sit on an IRB, an Institutional Review Board, whose task is to review and approve protocols for medical research.)

Experts in medical ethics end up knowing quite a lot about new technologies and treatments, end-of-life care, and principles of patient rights. My experience in the work world suggests that people don’t get very far criticizing the company they work for, the industry they’re in, their boss or the top executives. I think this holds true for professional ethicists at big nonprofits also, such as hospitals or medical schools.

For the record, people who go into the field of medical ethics don’t do it for the money. There’s no pharmaceutical industry backing their work, and they don’t earn more by doing more of some kind of procedure. Indeed, some already find themselves walking on eggshells because they gently point out some of the questionable priorities of work being done at their own institutions.

That’s not good enough.

It's the money, stupid.

In one of my Southern California interviews for medical school, I was told to meet a faculty member at his medical office. A prominent kidney specialist (nephrologist), he had a big, busy office. I was greeted warmly by the receptionist, and didn’t have to wait long to see him. He was just a few years older than me, but was in much better shape. He asked what I thought of the stock market. As politely as I could—I was trying to get in, after all—I told him that I wasn’t really involved in the stock market and was really focused on medical school. He seemed a little frustrated kidney beans when I left about 40 minutes later. He interrogated me nonstop for my opinion of sector rotation, Elliott Wave theory, and insider stock tips. He asked if I knew anything about options. As it happened, I knew a lot about options, and like a fool, I told him that I did know something about them. Politely, I felt him out about his understanding of Arrow-Debreu Theory and the Cox-Ross-Rubinstein model. Every time I tried to bring the conversation back to why I wanted to go to medical school, he steered the other way. In the packed parking lot of his office was a meticulously polished candy-apple-red Ferrari with the license plate ‘beans.’ Maybe I can’t complain too much: I was admitted.

A PubMed search of the word ethics turned up 139,072 published references in medical journals. A search of ethics AND money turned up just 536.

It’s no secret among the general public what the main conflict-of-interest is for many doctors, especially those who use the latest technology, do the most procedures, and, yes, make the most money. So why does it seem like a mystery to those in the ethics field? Nearly 30 years ago, business ethics were an integral part of my business school curriculum. These days it’s part of nearly every course in most top business schools. The business ethics of medical practice were never mentioned, even in passing, in any of my years of medical training. The money of medicine has such a palpable taint that doctors never bring it up with their patients--the billing office does that for them. It is so taboo that it is never discussed in medical school, and those who want to talk about it are openly shunned. Yet the faculty with clout in major institutions are often the ones who bring in the most revenue for their struggling hospitals and clinics.

But though I may have been a reformed, life-changing convert, I went through training with my eyes open and—when I had enough sleep for rational thought—my mouth shut. My years and years of training and experience in finance made some things shocking to me.

It is generally true that doctors who do things to you make a lot more—way, way more—money than doctors who do things for you. In fact, much of the payment system for doctors is largely controlled by procedure-type doctors. Why is this? Do they work harder? Are they smarter? Do they help you more?

In medical school, somehow we got the impression that psychiatrists were among the lower paid. After all, they got paid by the hour, not per procedure. But we were never told that what your psychiatrist probably does with you is heavily influenced by lectures and reviews given by a very small group of department heads of psychiatry departments at major medical schools. Members of this elite club might earn a pretty good, even enviable, living from their faculty positions. But they could earn a million dollars a year from ‘consulting’ and guest lecturing and speaking at educational seminars. Even for Wall Street, that’s real money. Is it ethical for them to take this money from pharmaceutical companies? How about neglecting to disclose this to their institutions (officially, their employers)? Should they have to disclose to patients that the drug they are recommending is one that they are paid a staggering amount of money to promote? Would I, as a patient, really believe that this doctor has my best interest as his only priority? Is there a level of compensation at which a reasonable person would not be expected to remain unbiased?

Studies showed that when doctors owned their own x-ray centers, their patients ended up getting, on average, more x-rays. In some states this is now illegal. But most big hospitals need to support themselves, and so work in partnership with doctors who do procedures in order to stay in business.

The comments and questions I would often receive while in training and occasionally since then, are telling. They went like this. ‘Wasn’t it awful working with all those greedy people on Wall Street?’ No, I replied. Most of the people I worked with were unbelievably smart, creative, and ambitious. Everybody was there to make money—it’s how you were measured. There was no deceit about it. But medicine, I saw, had many people who hid their material ambitions behind their job description. Maybe they were embarrassed by them. Maybe they knew that for them, patient care didn’t always come first. Every patient in America knows. Every doctor in America knows. It's the money.

I would be happy to volunteer to lead this effort, to define and examine the business ethics of medical practice.

The print at top is from my collection and is by Mary Cassatt.

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