Archive for August, 2013

Monday miscellany


08 2013

Spreading the word

If you haven’t already read Atul Gawande’s latest New Yorker piece on why some ideas spread fast and other spread slow, get to it:

 In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

Much of the material is Gawande’s essay won’t be new if you’re already interested in or working on maternal and child health, but Gawande presents it incredibly well. His comparison of spreading social innovation with the work of salesman also reminded me of another parallel: the parallels between diffusing secular, health-enhancing ideas and missionaries’ evangelistic techniques.

If that last sentence scares you off, hold on a moment for some background. I grew up in a small religious town in Arkansas and my first trips to developing countries were as a missionary. Over time my interests shifted from the preaching and teaching side of things to the medical side, and eventually to health and development policy as an entirely secular pursuit. When I first got to grad school for public health this resulted in some awkward moments, as many conversations would start with “so what first interested you in global health?” If I led with “well, I grew up wanting to be a missionary” I would often get one of two reactions: immediate skepticism of my motivations from my secular liberal classmates, or enthusiastic endorsement of my work (as they misunderstood it) from religious classmates. All that to say: while I think there are very good general reasons to keep public health and missionary efforts as separate as possible, both in theory and praxis, there are several things we secular liberals can still learn from the more devout.

One example is the neverending debates amongst evangelists between those who seek technological shortcuts and those who stick with old-fashioned person-to-person contact. This is a frequent topic at missions conferences (if you didn’t know such conferences existed, it might be an interesting google). You can view the rise of Christian radio broadcasts, followed by Christian TV and televangelists, as the great technological shortcuts: they give a single preacher the ability to reach millions, and if the message is just as good as when delivered in person, why shouldn’t it be just as effective? Some people are persuaded by televangelists, of course, but the effectiveness of the individual doesn’t scale easily to mass media. Likewise, in recent years there’s been much enthusiasm for social media and its potential to save more souls — but the results rarely pan out.  So despite all of the advances in mass and social media, most evangelists still harp on the importance of individual contact, of building relationships. One of the most effective (in terms of growth rate) groups in the world are Mormons, who, no coincidence, devote years of effort to one-on-one contact.

Gawande’s essay tells the story of how BRAC precipitated oral rehydration solution in Bangladesh, and I couldn’t help thinking of their campaign  as a sort of especially successful roving gospel meeting. And here’s Gawande’s closing, where he talks with a nurse who was convinced by a younger, less-experienced trainer to adopt some best practices for safe childbirth:

 “Why did you listen to her?” I [Gawande] asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

“Why?” I asked.

All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

Shortcuts are nice: in public health, unlike evangelism, it’s usually actions rather than beliefs that ultimately count, so I’m all for technological shortcuts when they’re available and effective. But they’re too few and far between, and much of the low-hanging fruit in global health has already been picked. To climb the next step require a lot more effort at improving the “messy and anachronistic”  processes of people and institutions.


08 2013

Formalizing corruption: US medical system edition

Oh, corruption. It interferes with so many aspects of daily life, adding time to the simplest daily tasks, costing more money, and — often the most frustrating aspect — adding huge doses of uncertainty. That describes life in many low-income, high-corruption countries, leading to many a conversation with friends about comparisons with the United States and other wealthy countries. How did the US “solve” corruption?

I’ve heard (and personally made) the argument that the US reduced corruption at least in part by formalizing it; by channeling the root of corruption, a sort of rent-seeking on a personal level, to rent-seeking on an institutional level. The US political and economic system has evolved such that some share of any wealth created is channeled into the pockets of a political and economic elite who benefit from the system and in turn reinforce it. That unproductively-channeled share of wealth is simultaneously a) probably smaller than the share of wealth lost to corruption in most developing countries, b) still large enough to head off — along with the threat of more effective prosecution — at least some more overt corruption, and c) still a major drain on society.

An example: Elisabeth Rosenthal profiles medical tourism in an impressive series in the New York Times. In part three of the series, an American named Michael Shopenn travels to Belgium to get a hip replacement. Why would he need to? Because health economics in the US is less a story of free markets and  more a story of political capture by medical interests, including technology and pharmaceutical companies, physicians’ groups, and hospitals:

Generic or foreign-made joint implants have been kept out of the United States by trade policy, patents and an expensive Food and Drug Administration approval process that deters start-ups from entering the market. The “companies defend this turf ferociously,” said Dr. Peter M. Cram, a physician at the University of Iowa medical school who studies the costs of health care.

Though the five companies make similar models, each cultivates intense brand loyalty through financial ties to surgeons and the use of a different tool kit and operating system for the installation of its products; orthopedists typically stay with the system they learned on. The thousands of hospitals and clinics that purchase implants try to bargain for deep discounts from manufacturers, but they have limited leverage since each buys a relatively small quantity from any one company.

In addition, device makers typically require doctors’ groups and hospitals to sign nondisclosure agreements about prices, which means institutions do not know what their competitors are paying. This secrecy erodes bargaining power and has allowed a small industry of profit-taking middlemen to flourish: joint implant purchasing consultants, implant billing companies, joint brokers. There are as many as 13 layers of vendors between the physician and the patient for a hip replacement, according to Kate Willhite, a former executive director of the Manitowoc Surgery Center in Wisconsin.

If this system existed in another country we wouldn’t hesitate to call it corrupt, and to note that it actively hurts consumers. It should be broken up by legislation for the public good, but instead it’s protected by legislators who are lobbied by the industry and by doctors who receive kickbacks, implicit and explicit. Contrast that with the Belgian system:

His joint implant and surgery in Belgium were priced according to a different logic. Like many other countries, Belgium oversees major medical purchases, approving dozens of different types of implants from a selection of manufacturers, and determining the allowed wholesale price for each of them, for example. That price, which is published, currently averages about $3,000, depending on the model, and can be marked up by about $180 per implant. (The Belgian hospital paid about $4,000 for Mr. Shopenn’s high-end Zimmer implant at a time when American hospitals were paying an average of over $8,000 for the same model.)

“The manufacturers do not have the right to sell an implant at a higher rate,” said Philip Boussauw, director of human resources and administration at St. Rembert’s, the hospital where Mr. Shopenn had his surgery. Nonetheless, he said, there was “a lot of competition” among American joint manufacturers to work with Belgian hospitals. “I’m sure they are making money,” he added.

It’s become a cliche to compare the US medical system to European ones, but those comparisons are made because it’s hard to realize just how systematically corrupt — and expensive, as a result — the US system is without comparing it to ones that do a better job of channeling the natural profit-seeking goals of individuals and companies towards the public good. (For the history of how we got here, Paul Starr is a good place to start.)

The usual counterargument for protecting such large profit margins in the US is that they drive innovation, which is true but only to an extent. And for the implants industry that argument is much less compelling since many of the newer, “innovative” products have proved somewhere between no better and much worse in objective tests.

The Times piece is definitely worth a read. While I generally prefer the formalized corruption to the unformalized version, I’ll probably share this article with friends — in Nigeria, or Ethiopia, or wherever else the subject comes up next.


08 2013

Advocates and scientists

A new book by The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. The blurbs on Amazon are fascinating because they indicate that either the reviewers didn’t actually read the book (which wouldn’t be all that surprising) or that Munk’s book paints a nuanced enough picture that readers can come away with very different views on what it actually proves. Here are two examples:

Amartya Sen: “Nina Munk’s book is an excellent – and moving – tribute to the vision and commitment of Jeffrey Sachs, as well as an enlightening account of how much can be achieved by reasoned determination.”

Robert Calderisi: “A powerful exposé of hubris run amok, drawing on touching accounts of real-life heroes fighting poverty on the front line.”

The publisher’s description seems to encompass both of those points of view: “The Idealist is the profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the reality of human life.” That sounds like a good read to me — I look forward to reading when it comes out in September.

Munk’s previous reporting strikes a similar tone. For example, here’s an excerpt of her 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Sachs:

Leaving the region of Dertu, sitting in the back of an ancient Land Rover, I’m reminded of a meeting I had with Simon Bland, head of Britain’s Department for International Development in Kenya. Referring to the Millennium Villages Project, and to Sachs in particular, Bland laid it out for me in plain terms: “I want to say, ‘What concept are you trying to prove?’ Because I know that if you spend enough money on each person in a village you will change their lives. If you put in enough resources—enough foreigners, technical assistance, and money—lives change. We know that. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve lived and worked on and managed [development] projects.

“The problem is,” he added, “when you walk away, what happens?”

Someone — I think it was Chris Blattman, but I can’t find the specific post — wondered a while back whether too much attention has been given to the Millennium Villages Project. After all, the line of thinking goes, the MVP’s have really just gotten more press and aren’t that different from the many other projects with even less rigorous evaluation designs. That’s certainly true: when journalists and aid bloggers debate the MVPs, part of what they’re debating is Sachs himself because he’s such a polarizing personality. If you really care about aid policy, and the uses of evidence in that policy, then that can all feel like an unhelpful distraction. Most aid efforts don’t get book-length profiles, and the interest in Sachs’ personality and persona will probably drive the interest in Munk’s book.

But I also think the MVP debates have been healthy and interesting — and ultimately deserving of most of the heat generated — because they’re about a central tension within aid and development, as well as other fields where research intersects with activism. If you think we already generally know what to do, then it makes sense to push forward with it at all costs. The naysayers who doubt you are unhelpful skeptics who are on some level ethically culpable for blocking good work. If you think the evidence is not yet in, then it makes more sense to function more like a scientist, collecting the evidence needed to make good decisions in the longer term. The naysayers opposing the scientists are then utopian advocates who throw millions at unproven projects. I’ve seen a similar tension within the field of public health, between those who see themselves primarily as advocates and those who see themselves as scientists, and I’m sure it exists elsewhere as well.

That is, of course, a caricature — few people fall completely on one side of the advocates vs. scientists divide. But I think the caricature is a useful one for framing arguments. The fundamental disagreement is usually not about whether evidence should be used to inform efforts to end poverty or improve health or advance any other goal. Instead, the disagreement is often over what the current state of knowledge is. And on that note, if you harbor any doubts on where Sachs has positioned himself on that spectrum here’s the beginning of Munk’s 2007 profile:

In the respected opinion of Jeffrey David Sachs…. the problem of extreme poverty can be solved. In fact, the problem can be solved “easily.” “We have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren’t dying of their poverty. That’s the basic truth,” he tells me firmly, without a doubt.

…To Sachs, the end of poverty justifies the means. By hook or by crook, relentlessly, he has done more than anyone else to move the issue of global poverty into the mainstream—to force the developed world to consider his utopian thesis: with enough focus, enough determination, and, especially, enough money, extreme poverty can finally be eradicated.

Once, when I asked what kept him going at this frenzied pace, he snapped back, “If you haven’t noticed, people are dying. It’s an emergency.”


via Gabriel Demombynes.

If you’re new to the Millennium Villages debate, here’s some background reading: a recent piece in Foreign Policy by Paul Starobin, and some good posts by Chris Blattman (one, two, three), this gem from Owen Barder, and Michael Clemens.