Race to the Bottom

April 21, 2017

I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Steve Nelson give an eloquent and impassioned talk about equity and racism yesterday, which led me to want to reprise this blog from a few years ago.

I am a racist. There, I said it.

I don’t mean an Archie Bunker-type bigot who hurls invective and spews hate. But view the world through the concept of race, the idea that characteristics are bundled together, and that knowing the color of someone’s skin can be informative about what is inside.  That is the essence of racism: the idea that race is determinative, that people of different color differ in other important ways.  (Some prefer to refer to this as racialism, but let’s just call a racist a racist.)

Now, I didn’t say I believe it; actually, I do not. But being honest with myself, I’d have to admit that when I encounter someone I don’t know, I reflexively begin to make assumptions about them based on their appearance.  I do not consciously accept the concept of race, but my instincts are otherwise.  When I see a patient in the emergency department who is black, I make assumptions about the fact that they probably live in the city of Milwaukee, and they are likely to be insured by Medicaid.  I virtually always catch myself, and I work furiously not to allow that initial assumption to enter into my thinking and actions.  But no matter how good I am at suppressing it, I can’t deny it came up.

I’d be willing to bet a decent amount of money that everyone reading this is also a racist. No doubt, you do your best, like me, to overcome it, and you probably don’t ever do or say anything that would be considered “racist” in the common use of that word.  But it’s probably inevitable.  In large part, it is a manifestation of the way our minds process information.  I have written previously about heuristics – mental shortcuts our brains use to reach conclusions more efficiently. These heuristics are based on our prior experiences and on statistical facts about groups.  When a child encounters a dog for the first time, she is unlikely to be fearful.  If her first experience results in being bitten, she will instinctively react with caution to dogs in the future.  Even those of us who have never been bitten are likely to be more leery around pit bulls, based on reports (which it turns out are probably wrong) that the breed accounts for the majority of bites.

We live in a society where, statistically, there is an association between, for example, race and poverty, or race and crime. In that sense, the heuristic isn’t wrong.  It’s true that in our ED, black patients do largely live in the city of Milwaukee, and are disproportionately poor.  We run into trouble in at least two ways.  First is when we take a true fact about a group and apply it to an individual.  Even if it’s true that more blacks in this area are more likely to not finish school, it is an affront to the inherent worth and dignity of each person to make any assumptions about an individual black person’s educational level.   When we deal with a person, we cannot use mental shortcuts.  But to overcome them we must acknowledge them.

It’s also a short and slippery slope from seeing an association to seeing causation. Many people are too willing to make the leap from “black people are more likely to live in poverty” (a true if unfortunate fact), to “black people are poor because they are black.”  Therein lies the kind of thinking that people commonly associate with the term racism.  And racism in this sense is still too prevalent in 2014.

Just six years ago, in the aftermath of President Obama’s election, we were hearing about how America had become “post-racial.” Now, it seems that race relations are in the worst shape I can remember.  What went wrong?

If the first step toward a solution is admitting there is a problem, we have to accept that we are, nearly universally, racist. It takes a lot of mental effort to override our heuristics.  Pretending racism is something that only overt bigots experience, it’s too easy to let down our guard.  It also closes off conversation.   The inherent racial thinking that we all have is pretty obvious to most members of racial minorities, but less so to those of us in the majority.  Denying it invalidates their experience and prevents us from building the kind of connections that might mitigate its effects.

I’d love to think we can actually get beyond the idea that skin color has anything to do with any other inherent characteristics – we don’t tend to draw the same conclusions based on hair or eye color, after all. Not that there hasn’t been some progress.  Some medical journals, for example, will not accept analyses based on race unless there is a clear biological explanation (e.g., a study involving actual skin pigmentation).  Too often race is used as shorthand for socioeconomic status or educational status; such reporting simply reinforces the stereotypes and does nothing to contribute to our understanding.  But race seems such an entrenched part of the way of looking at the world, it’s hard to imagine a “post-racial society” anytime soon.

In the meantime, if rational thinking is to prevail over instinct, need to accept that regardless of our best intentions, we all view the world through the lens of race. Go ahead, say it.

That Costs How Much?

April 7, 2017

My wife was recently trying to book a flight for business travel. The price of the flight on one airline from Minneapolis to DC varied from $700 to $2000.  How is it possible for the cost to vary three-fold?  The answer is, it doesn’t.  The cost depends primarily on how many people are needed to staff the plane, and how much fuel is used.  The cost of those flights was exactly the same.  It is the price that varies.  The point is, we often say that the $2000 flight costs more, but it depends on what we mean by cost.  The cost to the airline is the same.  The cost to my wife is very different.

The same is true when we talk about costs in healthcare. When you read about healthcare costs, it’s often a challenge to figure out exactly what is being addressed.  Do we mean the cost to the hospital to provide the service?  The cost to the patient?  The cost of the insurance?  Any can be true depending on the context.  However, in the end, what someone (whether a patient family or an insurer) pays for healthcare is ultimately tied to the cost of providing that care.  Just like the cost of a plane ticket is at root tied to the cost of staff and fuel.  Other factors, especially supply and demand, affect the price, but it starts with the cost of production.  So if we want to address the high cost of healthcare – whatever that means – we have to address the high cost of healthcare.

Like any other product, the cost of providing a healthcare service can be broken down into its parts. As in most service industries, labor is the biggest part of the cost.  Doctors, nurses, social workers, interpreters, pharmacists, etc.  These are highly trained individuals, and thus not easily replaced with cheaper labor.  Moreover, much of their work is not readily amenable to automation or outsourcing (though there are numerous examples of both).  Economist William Baumol refers to this as the “cost disease” that helps explain why healthcare costs (along with those of education and live entertainment) tend to rise faster than the cost of other goods and services.  Other main drivers of healthcare costs include equipment (which is typically expensive and rapidly obsolete) and supplies, especially pharmaceuticals.

To figure out the cost of providing a particular service – say, an MRI – you need to know the unit cost of each of the components, and the number of them you use. Unit cost might include a certain number of hours of nurse, radiation technologist, and physician time, a portion of the depreciation of the scanner itself, and medications for contrast or sedation.  You can bring down the cost of the MRI by getting cheaper components (for example, paying the radiologist at a lower rate, or using a less expensive contrast agent), or using fewer of those components (for example, not using contrast).

One more thing. The total cost of providing care is then the sum total of the cost of all of those particular services. The cost of caring for a child with appendicitis, for example, is the sum total of the cost of the various diagnostic tests, medications, and other therapies.  You can lower the cost of an appendectomy by making a CT scan cheaper to do, or you can lower the cost by doing fewer of those CT scans in the first place.  This is the heart of efficiency which, along with effectiveness and safety and patient-centeredness and equity, is one of the core domains of healthcare quality.

Why does this matter? The overall amount of money spent in the US on medical care continues to rise.  For individual families and for society as a whole, medical spending is starting to crowd out other priorities.  Families must choose between medical care and clothing.  States must choose between medical care and education.  You can’t open a newspaper or go on the Internet without hearing that people are unwilling to continue to spend more on healthcare.  Which means we in healthcare need to figure out how to lower the cost of that care.  Not lower the price.  Lower the cost.  We need to be compensated fairly for the service we provide, but we can’t simply advocate for more. We must become more efficient so that we can continue to provide care, and so that our patients and families will continue to be able to access it.  Otherwise someone else – likely someone who is not as knowledgeable about what it takes to provide excellent care, and someone with less personal investment in the outcome of the care – will do it for us.  And we won’t like the result.

But we can do it. Health professionals are smart, creative, and committed.  As an industry we have made healthcare more effective and safer than ever.  We can also, without sacrificing those other domains of quality, make it more efficient.  Otherwise people will forego it – just like my wife declined that $2000 flight to DC.

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