New CMS Chief Donald Berwick: a Trojan Horse for Quackery?

NB: I posted this on Health Care Renewal a couple of days ago, figuring that Dr. Gorski’s post would suffice for the SBM readership (he and I had discussed the topic while at TAM8 last week). But Managing Editor Gorski has asked me to repost it here, which I’m happy to do. I am especially pleased to demonstrate that I am capable of writing a shorter post than is Dr. Gorski. 😉

On July 7, President Obama appointed Dr. Donald Berwick as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Dr. Berwick, a pediatrician, is well known as the CEO of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which “exists to close the enormous gap between the health care we have and the health care we should have — a gap so large in the US that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2001 called it a ‘quality chasm’.” Dr. Berwick was one of the authors of that IOM report. His IHI has been a major player in the patient safety movement, most notably with its “100,000 Lives Campaign” and, more recently, its “5 Million Lives Campaign.”

Berwick’s CMS gig is a “recess appointment”: it was made during the Senate’s July 4th recess period, without a formal confirmation hearing—although such a hearing must take place before the end of this Senate term, if he is to remain in the position. A recent story suggested that Obama had made the recess appointment in order to avoid a reprise of “last year’s divisive health care debate.” The president had originally nominated Berwick for the position in April, and Republicans have opposed “Berwick’s views on rationing of care,” claiming that he “would deny needed care based on cost.”

A “Patient-Centered Extremist”

If there is a problem with the appointment, it is likely to be roughly the opposite of what Republicans might suppose: Dr. Berwick is a self-described “Patient-Centered Extremist.” He favors letting patients have the last word in decisions about their care even if that means, for example, choosing to have unnecessary and expensive hi-tech studies. In an article for Health Affairs published about a year ago, he explicitly argued against the “professionally dominant view of quality of health care”:

I think it wrong for the profession of medicine—or any other health care profession, for that matter—to “reserve to itself the authority to judge the quality of its work.” I eschew compromise words like “partnership.” For better or worse, I have come to believe that we—patients, families, clinicians, and the health care system as a whole—would all be far better off if we professionals recalibrated our work such that we behaved with patients and families not as hosts in the care system, but as guests in their lives. I suggest that we should without equivocation make patient-centeredness a primary quality dimension all its own, even when it does not contribute to the technical safety and effectiveness of care.

A new definition. My proposed definition of “patient-centered care” is this: The experience (to the extent the informed, individual patient desires it) of transparency, individualization, recognition, respect, dignity, and choice in all matters, without exception, related to one’s person, circumstances, and relationships in health care.

Does this mean that Dr. Berwick would also eschew professional, i.e., expert, judgment in favor of patients’ wishes? In a word, yes:

Evidence-based medicine sometimes must take a back seat. First, leaving choice ultimately up to the patient and family means that evidence-based medicine may sometimes take a back seat. One e-mail correspondent asked me, “Should patient ‘wants’ override professional judgment about whether an MRI is needed?” My answer is, basically, “Yes.” On the whole, I prefer that we take the risk of overuse along with the burden of giving real meaning to the phrase “a fully informed patient.”

Dr. Berwick is not so naive as this opinion might suggest. He envisions a “mature dialogue” in such a case, and argues that “if, over time, a pattern emerges of scientifically unwise or unsubstantiated choices…then we should seek to improve our messages…” He also admits that there might be an occasional patient whose demands are so unreasonable that “it is time to say, ‘No’.” That exception, he argues, should not dictate the rule.

There are situations in which most civilized people would agree with Dr. Berwick’s view of ‘patient-centeredness’. In both the Health Affairs article and in his recent address to the 2010 graduating class of the Yale School of Medicine, he offered real examples of petty, arbitrary hospital rules causing unnecessary sorrow for patients and their loved ones. It is in such contexts that he makes a convincing case that health professionals ought to behave “as guests in their lives.” In an interview for the New York Times, he argued:

We don’t have a standard of services or processes that are comfortable for patients. We have built a technocratic castle, and when people come into it, they are intimidated.

Nothing to disagree with there. To create that standard, moreover, would not undermine settled medical practice ethics—it would celebrate them, even as it rightly embarrasses the profession for having taken so long to do so.

Enter the Woo

Eschewing the scientific basis for modern medical practice, however, is another matter. In February of 2009, Dr. Berwick gave a ‘keynote’ address at the IOM and Bravewell Collaborative-sponsored Summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public. He shared the podium with Mehmet Oz, Dean Ornish, Senator Tom Harkin, and other advocates of pseudoscientific health claims. I wrote about the conference at the time, mainly to call attention to its misleading use of the term “integrative medicine“: literature emanating from the Summit characterized it as “preventive” and “patient-centered,” whereas the only characteristic that distinguishes it from modern medicine is its inclusion of various forms of pseudomedicine.

I noticed that Dr. Berwick was on the speaker roster, which I found disappointing: I imagined that he had either gone over to the Dark Side or, perhaps, was sufficiently naive about the topic to have been duped; or, more likely, that he had cynically accepted the offer to further his ambitions. I didn’t bother to listen to his speech until the CMS appointment was announced a few days ago.

It is troubling, to say the least. Dr. Berwick did not argue, as he had in the NYT piece, that “If we doctors feel a person is going to make unwise choices, we have to take on the responsibility of being teachers, educators and informers.” Rather, he praised his fellow speakers, most of whom were spouting nonsense, for their “reach” and “eloquence.” He praised the IOM for its “glorious record…in pursuit of better designs in health care…traditional, allopathic curative care and now migrating into this distinguished and important new arena.” He mentioned homeopathy and acupuncture, not to wonder why they should be promoted as effective, but merely to warn that they will fail—presumably in some economic sense—if they try to compete with each other for reimbursement.

Such language, and Dr. Berwick’s very presence at the Summit, were a far cry from advocating “patient-centeredness.” What they amounted to was a generous endorsement of pseudoscientific practices and of the socio-political movement that promotes them. Even granting some naivete on his part (he called himself “an amateur at this topic”), he must have known this. Such an endorsement, unlike tearing down the “technocratic castle,” has ethical implications at least as profound as those that Dr. Berwick tacitly or explicitly relies upon to support his arguments for patient-centeredness.

“Physicians have no Immunity to Moral or Ethical Constraints”

The relevant medical ethics treatises (reviewed here) are in substantial agreement that it is unethical for physicians to prescribe scientifically implausible methods or to refer patients to other practitioners for the same purpose. They are also in agreement that it is unethical to prescribe a placebo to a patient while claiming that the treatment has specific biologic activity—a point that has been vigorously argued in the UK this year, with regard to homeopathy. These ethical tenets are not mere odes to nerdy, sciency thinking; they are matters of honesty and integrity—fundamental bases for ethical interactions between physicians and patients.

In 1983, philosophers Clark Glymour and Douglas Stalker published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Engineers, cranks, physicians, magicians.” They framed modern medicine as follows, comparing it to what was then called “holistic medicine” (the article is quoted extensively here):

Medicine in industrialized nations is scientific medicine. The claim tacitly made by American or European physicians, and tacitly relied on by their patients, is that their palliatives and procedures have been shown by science to be effective. Although the physician’s medical practice is not itself science, it is based on science and on training that is supposed to teach physicians to apply scientific knowledge to people in a rational way.

The practice of medicine in the United States and in other industrialized nations is a form of consultant engineering…

That statement is just as accurate now—even more so, in this era of Evidence-Based Medicine—as it was nearly 30 years ago, even if some might find the likening of medicine to engineering displeasing. Nor is it at odds with almost any definition of “patient-centeredness,” other than one that presumes that the patient’s desires trump the physician’s ethics:

A physician engineer can act as consoler; nothing in either logic or social psychology forbids it. But certain combinations are impossible or extraordinarily unlikely. A physician engineer cannot honestly claim powers of magic or occult knowledge. The principles governing scientific reasoning and belief are negative as well as positive, and they imply that occult doctrines are not worthy of belief. Moreover, physician engineers have no immunity to moral or ethical constraints. On the contrary, they are by training and by culture enmeshed in a tradition of rational thought about the obligations and responsibilities of their profession.

Dr. Berwick—if he really believes what his presence and words at the “Integrative Medicine” Summit imply—is playing with ethical fire. (If, as I hope, he doesn’t really believe those things, he’s playing with ethics of another kind). Will we begin to see pseudomedicine “integrated” into Medicare and Medicaid? That is certainly the expectation of those who observed Dr. Berwick’s performance at the Summit, and who appear intent to hold him to his word.

Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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