Archive for the ‘public health’Category

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.

05

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.

Uninformative paper titles: "in Africa"

When I saw a new NBER working paper titled “Disease control, demographic change and institutional development in Africa” (PDF) pop up in the NBER RSS feed I thought the title sounded interesting, so I downloaded the paper to peruse later. Then today the new-ish (and great!) blog Cherokee Gothic highlighted the same paper in a post, and I finally took a look.

Unfortunately the paper title is rather uninformative, as the authors only used data from Burkina Faso. Sure, economics papers tend to have bigger, less formal titles than papers in some other fields, but I think this is particularly unhelpful. There are enough search frictions in finding applicable literature on any given topic that it helps to be somewhat more precise.

For reference, here’s Burkina Faso:

And here’s Africa:

Not the same.

It’s unclear from the data and arguments presented how these results — for a regional disease control program, but only using data from Burkina Faso — might generalize to the quite diverse disease environments, demographic trends, and institutional histories of various African countries. The paper doesn’t answer or even give much grounds for speculation on whether onchocerciasis or other disease control programs would yield similar results in countries as diverse as (for example) Senegal, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Angola.

A quick thought experiment: Virginia’s population is about 1.5% of the total population of North America, just as Burkina Faso’s population is about 1.5% of the total population on Africa. Can you imagine someone writing a paper on health and institutions using data from Virginia and titling that paper “Health and institutions in North America”? Or writing a paper on Vietnamese history and titling it “A history of Asia”? Probably not.

27

07 2013

"Redefining global health delivery"

Jim Yong Kim, Paul Farmer, and Michael Porter wrote a piece called “Redefining global health delivery” for the Lancet in May. The abstract:

Initiatives to address the unmet needs of those facing both poverty and serious illness have expanded significantly over the past decade. But many of them are designed in an ad-hoc manner to address one health problem among many; they are too rarely assessed; best practices spread slowly. When assessments of delivery do occur, they are often narrow studies of the cost-effectiveness of a single intervention rather than the complex set of them required todeliver value to patients and their families. We propose a framework for global health-care delivery and evaluation by considering efforts to introduce HIV/AIDS care to resource-poor settings. The framework introduces the notion of care delivery value chains that apply a systems-level analysis to the complex processes and interventions that must occur, across a health-care system and over time, to deliver high-value care for patients with HIV/AIDS and cooccurring conditions, from tuberculosis to malnutrition. To deliver value, vertical or stand-alone projects must be integrated into shared delivery infrastructure so that personnel and facilities are used wisely and economies of scale reaped. Two other integrative processes are necessary for delivering and assessing value in global health: one is the alignment of delivery with local context by incorporating knowledge of both barriers to good outcomes (from poor nutrition to a lack of water and sanitation) and broader social and economic determinants of health and wellbeing (jobs, housing, physical infrastructure). The second is the use of effective investments in care delivery to promote equitable economic development, especially for those struggling against poverty and high burdens of disease. We close by reporting our own shared experience of seeking to move towards a science of delivery by harnessing research and training to understand and improve care delivery.

I think the overall thrust of the piece is something that is widely agreed upon by global health policy wonks, but I like that they lay out a more specific framework for thinking with this sort of systems approach. But, I’d love to see some more detail on putting it into practice on a national or subnational level.

22

07 2013

Slow down there

Max Fisher has a piece in the Washington Post presenting “The amazing, surprising, Africa-driven demographic future of the Earth, in 9 charts”. While he notes that the numbers are “just projections and could change significantly under unforeseen circumstances” the graphs don’t give any sense of the huge uncertainty involved in projecting trends out 90 years in the future.

Here’s the first graph:

 

The population growth in Africa here is a result of much higher fertility rates, and a projected slower decline in those rates.

But those projected rates have huge margins of error. Here’s the total fertility rate, or “the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime”  for Nigeria, with confidence intervals that give you a sense of just how little we know about the future:

That’s a lot of uncertainty! (Image from here, which I found thanks to a commenter on the WaPo piece.)

It’s also worth noting that if you had made similar projections 87 years ago, in 1926, it would have been hard to anticipate World War II, hormonal birth control, and AIDS, amongst other things.

18

07 2013

Typhoid counterfactuals

An acquaintance (who doesn’t work in public health) recently got typhoid while traveling. She noted that she had had the typhoid vaccine less than a year ago but got sick anyway. Surprisingly to me, even though she knew “the vaccine was only about 50% effective” she now felt that it was  a mistake to have gotten the vaccine. Why? “If you’re going to get the vaccine and still get typhoid, what’s the point?”

I disagreed but am afraid my defense wasn’t particularly eloquent in the moment: I tried to say that, well, if it’s 50% effective and you and, I both got the vaccine, then only one of us would get typhoid instead of both of us. That’s better, right? You just drew the short straw. Or, if you would have otherwise gotten typhoid twice, now you’ll only get it once!

These answers weren’t reassuring in part because thinking counterfactually — what I was trying to do — isn’t always easy. Epidemiologists do this because they’re typically told ad nauseum to approach causal questions by first thinking “how could I observe the counterfactual?” At one point after finishing my epidemiology coursework I started writing a post called “The Top 10 Things You’ll Learn in Public Health Grad School” and three or four of the ten were going to be “think counterfactually!”

A particularly artificial and clean way of observing this difference — between what happened and what could have otherwise happened — is to randomly assign people to two groups (say, vaccine and placebo). If the groups are big enough to average out any differences between them, then the differences in sickness you observe are due to the vaccine. It’s more complicated in practice, but that’s where we get numbers like the efficacy of the typhoid vaccine — which is actually a bit higher than 50%.

You can probably see where this is going: while the randomized trial gives you the average effect, for any given individual in the trial they might or might not get sick. Then, because any individual is assigned only to the treatment or control, it’s hard to pin their outcome (sick vs. not sick) on that alone. It’s often impossible to get an exhaustive picture of individual risk factors and exposures so as to explain exactly which individuals will get sick or not in advance. All you get is an average, and while the average effect is really, really important, it’s not everything.

This is related somewhat to Andrew Gelman’s recent distinction between forward and reverse causal questions, which he defines as follows:

1. Forward causal inference. What might happen if we do X? What are the effects of smoking on health, the effects of schooling on knowledge, the effect of campaigns on election outcomes, and so forth?

2. Reverse causal inference. What causes Y? Why do more attractive people earn more money? Why do many poor people vote for Republicans and rich people vote for Democrats? Why did the economy collapse?

The randomized trial tries to give us an estimate of the forward causal question. But for someone who already got sick, the reverse causal question is primary, and the answer that “you were 50% less likely to have gotten sick” is hard to internalize. As Gelman says:

But reverse causal questions are important too. They’re a natural way to think (consider the importance of the word “Why”) and are arguably more important than forward questions. In many ways, it is the reverse causal questions that lead to the experiments and observational studies that we use to answer the forward questions.

The moral of the story — other than not sharing your disease history with a causal inference buff — is that reconciling the quantitative, average answers we get from the forward questions with the individual experience won’t always be intuitive.

17

07 2013

African population density

I was recently struck by differences in population density: Northern Nigeria’s Kano state has an official population of ~10 million, whereas the entire country of Zambia has 13.5. Zambia’s land area, meanwhile, is also about 35 times that of Kano.

So I started looking around for a nice map of population density in Africa. The best I found was this one via UNEP:

And here’s a higher resolution version.

Some of the most striking concentrations are along the Mediterranean coast, the Nile basin, the Ethiopian plateau, and around Lake Victoria. (I’d love to track down the data behind this map but haven’t had time.)

A good map can change how you think. If you’re used to seeing maps that have country-level estimates of disease prevalence, for instance, you miss variations at the subnational level. This is often for good reason, as the subnational data is often even spottier than the national estimates. But another thing you miss is a sense of absolute population numbers, because looking at a map it’s much easier to see countries by their areas rather than their populations, which for matters of health and other measures of human well-being is generally what we care about. There are some cool maps that do this but they inevitably lose their geographic accuracy.

12

07 2013

"When public health works, it's invisible"

Caitlin Rivers’ post on the “public health paradox: why people don’t get flu shots” hits the nail on the head:

Unfortunately, the root of this problem is deep. The problem is that when public health works, it is invisible. It’s an insidious, persistent public relations issue that plagues public health. Nobody sees when a chain of disease transmission is broken, or when contaminated food is prevented from reaching the market, or when toxic pollutants don’t enter the environment. That’s the point: the goal of public health is prevention, not reaction….

What then can be done to counteract these misperceptions? First, public health needs to be more vocal about its successes. This graphic of crude death rates for infectious diseases during the 19th century, for example, should be widely disseminated. A little self-promotion could go a long ways.

That’s one reason I like Millions Saved, from the Center for Global Development — it highlights “proven success in global health.” One of the things that struck me when reading it was that most of the people who benefited from these interventions and programs would have no way of knowing that they benefited.

For another positive take, check out Charles Kenny’s book Getting Better.

 

22

04 2013

An uphill battle

I took this photo in the NYC subway a few days ago. My apologies for the quality, but I thought it’s a great juxtaposition:

In the top of the photo is an ad from the NYC Department of Health, advising you to choose food with less sodium. (Here’s an AP story about the ads.) But to the bottom right is an ad for McDonald’s dollar menu, and those are everywhere. While it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run such ads, it’s worth remembering that the sheer volume of food advertising will always dwarf opposing health messages. 

03

04 2013

Rearranging the malarial deck chairs?

A friend sent this link to me, highlighting a critical comment about the future of the World Health Organization, in the context of the World Malaria Report 2012. Here’s an excerpt of the comment by William Jobin:

Their 2012 Annual Report is a very disturbing report from WHO, for at least two reasons:

1. Their program is gradually falling apart, and they offer no way to refocus, no strategy for dealing with the loss in funding, nor the brick wall of drug and biocide resistance which is just down the road. There is a label for people who keep doing the same thing, but expect different results. Do you remember what it is?

2. Because the entire top management of WHO consists of physicians, they have no idea of the opportunities they are missing for additional funding and for additional methods to add to their chemically-oriented strategy…

Concluding with:

I am not sure WHO has much of a future, nor does the UN system itself, after their failure to prevent the wars in Libya and Syria. But as long as the UN and WHO continue to operate, they must refocus their approach to face the reality of a rapidly declining budget from UN sources. Instead, I see them just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

My friend said, “I wish these comments (and issues with the WHO and UN) were more publicised! This is not the first time I am hearing of such issues with the WHO and its demise.” I’ve certainly heard similar sentiments about the WHO from classmates and professors, but it seems there’s much less open discussion than you might expect. I’d welcome discussion in the comments…

28

03 2013