Getting the Best Possible Organs for the Rest of Us

By Mark McQuain

A recent September 6th Perspective in the NEJM entitled “Voluntary Euthanasia – Implications for Organ Donation” teases with the following lead-in:“Canada now permits physicians to hasten the death of a patient by means of physician-assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. This development creates a new pathway for organ donation – and with it, some challenges.” Kudos to the NEJM marketing department for luring me into finally buying a full subscription. I’ll summarize some key points for those without a subscription.

The article begins by summarizing some differences between the comatose patient receiving end-of-life care in a standard ICU environment and the situation of individual intending voluntary euthanasia in a hospital. Healthcare teams may rely on surrogate decision making in the first instance but require first person consent in the euthanasia instance. Also, use of sedatives and analgesics in traditional end of life care are guided by the doctrine of double effect (intending comfort but not death) whereas physicians are not legally required to titrate those same medications in the instance of voluntary euthanasia (where euthanasia is legal). These issues are effectively the non-controversial portion of the article.

The heart of the article dealt with what one ought to do in the situation of a patient who wants to donate his or her organs “in the best condition possible” while receiving voluntary euthanasia. This would involve “procuring the patient’s organs in the same way that organs are procured from brain-dead patients (with the use of general anesthesia to ensure the patient’s comfort).”

The problem is that these patients aren’t brain dead yet. The authors are frustrated that awaiting brain death, even in voluntary euthanasia, results in sub-optimal quality of the donor organs. Harvesting organs from voluntarily euthanized patients before they are brain-dead “would require an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada, which defines medical assistance in dying as the administration of a ‘substance’ by a qualified provider. By this definition, organ retrieval is not an accepted cause of death.” (N.B.- Though it most certainly is the cause of death!)

For those unable to retrieve the NEJM article, I offer a similar article by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu supporting the same ethical argument (that it is OK to cause the death of an individual by harvesting their organs if they wished voluntary euthanasia). They summarize Dr. Robert Truog’s bioethical position (one of the authors of the present NEJM article) in footnote 66 as follows:

“Truog’s justification for ODE [Organ Donation Euthanasia] is different from that presented here [in our paper]. He argues that current concepts of brain death and the dead-donor rule are incoherent, and he proposes an alternative based upon the principles of autonomy and non-maleficence. We find Truog’s arguments compelling. Our paper can be seen as providing a complementary argument in favour of ODE. Truog favours a narrow definition for the group of patients who may consent to this procedure: only those who will die within minutes of withdrawal of life support, or who are permanently unconscious. Our definition of LSW [Life Support Withdrawal] donors overlaps with Truog’s, but includes the larger group of patients from whom it is permissible to withdraw life support in intensive care, and whose death is highly likely to ensue (though not necessarily instantly).”

To be blunt, what both groups are arguing is that it should be OK to surgically remove organs from an individual who is not brain dead though has already consented to voluntary euthanasia, knowing that the surgical removal of the organs will cause the immediate death of the individual. The priority of marrying euthanasia and organ donation is obtaining the best possible organs for the rest of us.

As a counter argument, I again turn to Wesley Smith for his thoughts in a recent National Review article similarly entitled “Canada Conjoining Euthanasia/Organ Donation”. It is short and to the point.

I must concur with Wesley Smith: The slippery slope of euthanasia is getting more slippery. How long before we grease those skids further by paying for the organs so harvested?

Reducing Abortion Regardless of Roe v. Wade

By Mark McQuain

The selection of the next Supreme Court Justice has perhaps naturally unleashed a flurry of op-eds describing the post-apocalyptic world that will result from any partial or complete reversal of Roe v. Wade. In the July 18th, 2018 Perspective in the NEJM, Dr. Julie Ingelfinger offers the tragic case of a foreign nursing student she befriended while both were training in New York in the late 1960s. The student was finishing her final nursing year and was engaged to be married when she became pregnant despite the use of contraceptives. Per Dr. Ingelfinger, neither the student nor fiancé had “the means to provide for a baby, so they reluctantly decided that terminating the pregnancy was the only choice.” The only abortion option available at that time, pre-Roe v. Wade, was a “back-alley abortion.” After the abortion, the student developed sepsis, resulting in a hysterectomy and kidney failure. Dr. Ingelfinger oversaw the dialysis and despite appropriate medical care, the student died suddenly from complications of the dialysis. Dr. Ingelfinger’s reason for sharing this story now is to remind us that back-alley abortions resulted in similar complications in many other young women pre-Roe v. Wade and warn that if Roe v. Wade is overturned in the future, young women seeking abortion will again suffer the same fate as her nursing student friend.

In a similar vein to Dr. Ingelfinger’s editorial, there is a second op-ed on CNN website on May 5, 2018 by Danielle Campoamor entitled “Why Supporting Abortion is a Pro-Life Position”. She fears any future restrictions in Roe v. Wade will result in the suffering or death of young women seeking an abortion and wants everyone to have the “safe, affordable and relatively easy abortion” that she experienced:

“I wasn’t subjected to mandatory waiting periods, forced counseling or an abortion provider required to regurgitate state-mandated, inaccurate information. I didn’t have to travel long distances, worry I was getting there too late in the pregnancy, find money to pay for child care or walk past angry or intrusive protesters. Instead, I went in pregnant and, a few hours later, came out with my future back in my control.”

In both articles, the focus is unilaterally on the health and life of the mother. Ms. Campoamor’s position is easily challenged, if not decimated, by including the health and life of the baby in her calculus. Dr. Ingelfinger’s premise requires more unpacking.

Her position appears to be that all future unwanted pregnancies in an overturned-Roe v. Wade world would require a pre-Roe v. Wade “back-alley” surgical abortion. Many Latin American countries have never legalized abortion yet their illegal abortion fatalities have dropped as medical abortifacients (morning after pills) have replaced surgical abortion methods. Interestingly, both the author of the previously linked article on the Latin American experience and Dr. Ingelfinger cited economics (and not legality) as a main reason for choosing abortion. Analysis of the statistics on why women in the US choose to abort challenges this assertion. A clear understanding of these statistics might help identify strategies that lead to a voluntary reduction in the number of abortions, absent changes in the legal status of abortion.

There is a nearly 15-fold increased risk to carry a baby to full-term than it is to have an elective abortion. We have “successfully” divorced sexual activity from the risk and responsibility of bearing and rearing a child, as long as we are willing to use abortion as the definitive stop gap in maintaining our birth control. From my standpoint, this success and this control has come at a terrible price, namely the deaths of over 60 million babies in the US alone. Sadly, I pessimistically do not believe that there will be a meaningful change in the Federal law regarding abortion, regardless of who becomes our next Supreme Court Justice (link requires subscription). There are simply too many women and men who have come to rely upon the type of control of their future activities that abortion provides. Therefore, I ask Dr. Ingelfinger, Ms. Campoamor and all of those on the other side of the abortion divide: must all unwanted pregnancies end in abortion (medical or surgical), regardless of the status of Roe v. Wade?

Mumbling orphans—a bit more

Mark McQuain has raised the persistent, vexing issue of the pricing of drugs for rare diseases—in the case at hand, Sarepta’s eteplirsen (Exondys 51) for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the disease over which the late comedian Jerry Lewis lost sleep every Labor Day weekend for years.

Mark provided an excellent summary (he calls it “crude,” but it’s anything but that).  In this case, the concern is not just price for a truly rare disease, but whether the drug showed sufficient evidence that it worked for FDA to approve it.  In the absence of alternative treatments, that was the truly tempestuous issue for Sarepta.  (Recall that under the 1962 Kefauver-Harris amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act, drug manufacturers in the U.S. may not sell a drug unless the FDA finds it not only safe, but effective—a standard that generally applies worldwide.)  It’s one thing for a drug to have a high price, but rather another if it doesn’t work, or doesn’t work very well.  (I decline to comment publicly about the Sarepta data; outside my expertise.  Those seeking a case in point may wish to consider Avastin for breast cancer.)

And to be sure the high price concern dogs other treatments that appear to work quite well—such as high-profile ones for cystic fibrosis or for cancer.  A case can be made that such drugs are worth the price, that too much government heavy-handedness risks stifling innovation, and that a search for the “just price” is misguided, but also, for sure, that society should share the costs of some of these drugs, that measures should be taken to limit out-of-pocket costs to disease sufferers, and that reimbursement approaches are ripe for overhaul.  In that last bucket: if drugs work only some of the time, only pay for the cases in which they do work; foster true competition (rather than having the costs of all drugs in a class go up when a new one is introduced, as if drugs were houses); eliminate the middle man (i.e., pharmacy-benefit managers that take a cut—that appears on the horizon); and the “biggie,” having government payers push back harder on prices.  At least some of these measures seem likely, and at least some seem warranted.

But overall, high costs for truly innovative treatments are justifiable, where no alternatives existed previously and especially when other, more expensive and quite possibly less effective medical treatments may be obviated (see: drug treatment for hepatitis C vs liver transplantation).  This is not to endorse price gouging for existent, cheap drugs that fall into an incidental monopoly (in which case, BTW, elimination of said monopoly, through regulatory facilitation of alternative sources, is warranted).

The Cost of Getting RNA to Mumble

By Mark McQuain

In my previous blog entry, I crudely summarized the genetic basis for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and one pharmaceutical company’s (Sarepta) current effort to research, manufacture and finance a genetic treatment that increases the production of a muscle protein missing in patients with DMD called dystrophin. Please see my previous blog entry for that summary or this article for a more detailed thorough overview of the science and investigational process to date. For this blog entry, I want to consider the bioethics of the cost of Sarepta’s treatment eteplirsen (Exondys 51), currently estimated on average to be around $300,000 per year.

DMD is a devastating disease that generally causes the patient’s death by his mid-twenties but it only affects a very small number of boys and young men worldwide, estimated to be around 400-600 newborn males in the US each year. This small number of patients places medications for DMD in a category called Orphan Drugs, those that benefit fewer than 200,00 people per year. Eteplirsen is only beneficial in the 15% of DMD patients that have the specific RNA defect in dystophin protein production that eteplirsen corrects. Back-of-the napkin calculations mean that if 15% of all 600 boys born in the US every year with DMD (90 boys per year) used Sarepta’s $300,000-per-year drug, that is a $27 million increase in revenue (not profit) to Sarepta each year. While that sounds huge, it ignores the massive expensive cost barriers to bringing such a drug to market, including research, investigational studies to gain FDA approval and legal financial risk with future adverse effects yet unknown. Inability to gain FDA approval prohibits access to capital markets necessary to fund such a process. Were it not for grants available for orphan drugs, it is unlikely that eteplirsen would exist. Better for drug makers to target their R&D to a bigger disease market for the chance of a bigger reward (consider Bayer aspirin and their $3.3 BILLION profit in 2011 alone).

There are calls for Sarepta to “give back” some of their potential future income, calls from the very organizations that were their staunchest supporters in their FDA approval process. Strong ethical arguments are made that the company did benefit early on by using federal grants and this alone should require the company to reduce a portion of their future income by lowing the cost to patients. Calls for the FDA to federalize Sarepta’s patents and take government ownership will most certainly go unheeded as that would cause every other orphan drug manufacturer to immediately discontinue any further financial risk for fear of similar confiscation.

There are, however, opportunity costs beyond the financial. Some would say that the FDA approved eteplirsen with extremely flimsy data, as less than 10 boys showed borderline promising results when the drug was approved in November 2016. That FDA approval allowed Sarepta to survive as a company. Per the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal(subscription needed):

“But if FDA had cashiered that therapy, Sarepta would have lacked the resources to continue its research and testing to treat Duchenne and develop what may be an even better drug. If eteplirsen had failed to get approval, dollars and brain power would inevitably have flowed toward treating other diseases with more promise of success. FDA has tremendous influence over private investment.”

Indeed Sarepta has new genetic treatments in the pipeline which reportedly do provide increased levels of dystrophin, even for RNA patterns beyond what eteplirsen can presently correct. Have the ends justified the means? Presently, for DMD patients, despite the $300K yearly price tag for eteplirsen, that answer may be – yes. Sadly, there are no other currently functional treatment options for DMD – yet.

From a public health standpoint (and a public funding standpoint), orphan drugs for treatment of small population diseases like DMD are non-starters. Is the only answer to provide the opportunity for great financial reward to encourage individuals to assume all of the private risk?

Forcing RNA to, at least, Mumble…

BY MARK MCQUAIN

We are at a turning point in medicine where instead of supplementing patients with proteins or enzymes that their bodies fail to manufacture due to genetic abnormalities, we soon may be able to re-engineer the abnormal DNA, restoring the DNA’s ability to instruct the body to make those same proteins or enzymes. On our way to full-fledged genetic engineering, we have learned that DNA makes something called RNA, which can be thought of as specific instructions for assembling these vital proteins, telling cells exactly how to assemble protein building blocks, called amino acids, in their proper sequence. Even a very minor disorder in a very long amino acid sequence of a protein can cause that protein to function poorly or not at all. When bad DNA makes bad RNA, or when good RNA gets subsequently damaged or misread, the protein either gets assembled in a garbled fashion, or not at all. Think of RNA as the boss of protein production who can speak clearly, mumble or say nothing at all. Recently, there is one well-known disease where it looks like it is possible to force bad RNA that presently says nothing at all to, at least, mumble.

The disease is Muscular Dystophy (MD) and the missing necessary protein is called dystrophin. Dystrophin is responsible for the structural integrity of muscle. Poorly formed or garbled dystrophin results in a mild form of MD, such as one called Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD) where patients can live well into their 40s or 50s. If no dystrophin is produced at all, a severe form of the disease called Duchenne MD (DMD) results, in which muscles simply fall apart over a shorter period of time, causing patients to stop walking in their teens, usually dying in their twenties from cardiac or respiratory muscle failure. While it would be great to restore normal production of dystrophin in patients with DMD, one company called Sarepta, appears to be able to cause patients with DMD, who normally do not make any dystrophin, to produce a garbled dystrophin, giving them a milder BMD-like disease.

Consider the following sentence: “The big red fat cat bit the sly fox and ate the shy jay”. The individual letters represent the RNA sequence and the three letter words represent unique amino acid protein building blocks, resulting in a meaningful protein sentence – think of this as the normal dystrophin protein in a healthy person. If the RNA was missing the 22nd through 24th letters (the 8th word “sly”), the sentence becomes: “The big red fat cat bit the fox and ate the shy jay”. It is a minimally garbled version of the first sentence but still meaningful – think of this as the dysfunctional dystrophin in milder BMD. If the original RNA sequence was missing only the 7th and 8th letters, the sentence becomes: “The big dfa tca tbi tth esl yfo xan dat eth esh yja y”. This sentence has no meaning beyond “The big” – think of this as no dystrophin in severe DMD. If we could get the RNA reader to ignore the first letter “d” in the last RNA sequence, the sentence becomes: “The big fat cat bit the sly fox and ate the shy jay”. We are back to a minimally garbled version of the first sentence but still meaningful – think of this as another dysfunctional protein in a milder “Becker-like” MD. This is how scientists at Sarepta appear to have taken an RNA sequence that originally said nothing and forced it to mumble, producing a new garbled form of dystrophin, which works better than no dystrophin at all.

I realize this has been a long walk in the weeds for some of our regular readers but hopefully it has provided some helpful background into the current treatment of MD and a sense of how much further we have yet to go. I will use this blog entry as background for my next blog entry to discuss some of the bioethics around the cost of getting RNA to mumble.

For now and for me, advancing medical knowledge like this convinces me of how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. (Psalm 139:14)

Labs are growing human embryos for longer than ever before

BY JON HOLMLUND

That’s only a slight paraphrase of a news feature article this week in Nature.  The clearly-written article is devoid of scientific jargon, with helpful illustrations, open-access online, and readily accessible to the non-specialist.  Check it out.

Key points include:

  • Scientists who do not find it ethically unacceptable to create and destroy human embryos solely for research purposes continue to follow the so-called “14-day rule,” by which such experimentation is limited to the first 14 days after fertilization. At that point, the human nervous system starts to form and the time for twinning is past.
  • The 14-day rule is law in some nations, but until now has not been a practical issue because scientists have been unable to grow human embryos that long in the laboratory.
  • That technical limit has been sufficiently overcome that embryos are now surviving for almost 14 days. Scientists have not directly challenged the 14-day rule yet, but might, and would like to revisit it.
  • Experiments on human embryos in that time have included editing of critical genes to see what happens (sometimes they stop growing), and making hybrids of animal embryos with human cells whose purpose is to “organize” embryonic development rather than remain part of the developing individual.
  • Embryo-like structures, referred to as “embryoids” in the article, and sounding similar to “SHEEFs” (“synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”) are also being created. These entities don’t necessarily develop nervous systems in the same way as a natural embryo, prompting questions of just how much they are like natural embryos, whether the 14-day rule applies, and whether they raise other ethical concerns.

The last paragraph of the article, reproduced here with emphases added, is striking and more than a little ironic in light of arguments that embryos are “just a clump of cells”:

As the results of this research accumulate, the technical advances are inspiring a mixture of fascination and unease among scientists. Both are valuable reactions, says [Josephine] Johnston [bioethicist from the Hastings Center]. “That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings,” she says. “It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Vaccines: Modern Trolley Car Dilemmas

BY MARK MCQUAIN

The Trolley Car dilemma is back in bioethics news. For those unfamiliar with the trolley car dilemma, you alone are responsible to operate a trolley track switch to divert an out-of-control trolley car away from five workers on one section of track only to cause the death of a lone worker on the only alternate section of track. The dilemma: someone is going to die, and you get to decide who. In a recent editorial in the June 13th New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum nicely describes the utilitarian dilemma surrounding the public health risks and benefits associated with a vaccine for the dengue virus, a mosquito-borne virus that annually causes significant severe illness and death worldwide. The dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, is a real-world trolley car dilemma. Dengvaxia presently can protect large numbers of patients from this deadly virus, but at the expense of causing severe illness and death in a much smaller number of patients, mostly children.

Dr. Rosenbaum describes our response to utilitarian thinking, correctly I think. We don’t mind utilitarian rules that negatively affect others, particularly when the rules tend to confer benefit to our group as a whole (the very definition of utilitarianism) but we resist utilitarian thinking when it threatens to affect us negatively as an individual despite overall benefit to the rest of our group. Healthy self-interest often conflicts with the utilitarian calculus that purports to determine the overall benefit to the group. In the case of Dengvaxia, if the deaths caused by the vaccine only occurred in people who would have died from the natural dengue virus anyway, there would be no problem. In other words, by golly, you all were going to die from the widespread disease anyway, and since the vaccine did save some of you from dying, there is really no new or additional loss. Net positive outcome, right?

Sadly, vaccines do not work that way. With Dengvaxia, it may be possible to create a pre-vaccine test for seropositivity for the virus. This would mean determining whether a person previously had a very mild case of the virus such that they would not suffer a catastrophic outcome from receiving the vaccine, thereby allowing them to safely receive the vaccine to prevent a more severe case of dengue in the future. Such a screening test may be possible but it would cost some unknown amount of additional money and would still not be 100% accurate. Even so, no vaccine is 100% safe.

How many lives would need to be saved and at what cost before we are satisfied with the cost/benefit ratio of Dengvaxia (or any vaccine for that matter)? Presently the World Health Organization is recommending a pre-vaccination test be developed and only vaccinate those who test positive for prior exposure. This is effectively saying that the vaccination is not only not required but not even presently recommended in endemic regions, this despite the fact that Dengvaxia clearly significantly reduces overall mortality and morbidity. If the disease were more contagious and more lethal than dengue, at what point does the vaccine, however imperfect, become mandatory? This is the ultimate trolley car switch for public health officials.

Aren’t trolley car dilemmas fun?

More on physician-assisted suicide

Recently, Dr. Arthur Caplan of NYU, on the Medscape service (subscription required), took on the question of whether physician-assisted suicide (PAS) should be allowed for old folks just because they are old, or because they want to die together.  There have been reports of just that.  While he supports PAS for terminal illness but objects that PAS for “suffering” in general is just too fuzzy, and therefore rejects broadening it.  An accompanying poll of doctors reported:  64-36% against PAS for old age, but 69-31% in favor of PAS for terminal illness.  As some advocates of PAS, like the editors of The Economist, have pointed out in the past, however, this distinction is highly difficult to sustain:  if someone is suffering “intolerably,” who are we to overrule that person’s wishes based on a diagnosis of the cause of said suffering?

Better is to recognize, as Neil Skojdlal noted this week, that real palliative care is not PAS, but is the ethical alternative.  And as Mark McQuain noted this week, changing the terminology confuses, rather than clarifies, the issues.  At least Dr. Lo, whose New England Journal of Medicine editorial Mark reviewed, accepted that not all physicians will accept PAS or be willing to offer it or refer for it.  He seemed to make room for that—unlike some advocates.

In a related item, Hastings center president Mildred Solomon “Calls for ‘Moral Leadership’ to Improve End-of-Life Care.”  In essence, she argues that over-emphasis on “autonomy” can be a way for doctors to abdicate their responsibility, and leave patients out to dry without guidance in end of life decision making.  She argues for a more relational approach, rethinking social supports to provide people with broader help in late life.  Makes sense.  She doesn’t address PAS in the brief piece I’m citing here, but I would certainly leave that out of the list of recommendations.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Dr. Bernard Lo, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco and present President and CEO of the Greenwall Foundation, a foundation that sponsors bioethics research, wrote one of the lead editorials in the May 31st NEJM entitled Beyond Legalization – Dilemmas Physicians Confront Regarding Aid in Dying. His main point was that regardless of the physician’s position, given the increasing number of jurisdictions where “Physician Aid in Dying” (his term, hereafter PAD) is now legal, at some point the physician will probably be asked about the process, as well as their position, and whether or not they are willing to participate, so it is better for physicians to have answers to those questions prior to that doctor-patient discussion. I think it is perhaps more important to understand the terminology in which these issues are presently being discussed so I encourage your review of the short editorial in the link before considering my following concerns.

I believe the lumping of all terminal care into the moniker PAD confuses the issue. Physicians have always participated in their patient’s care, including the death of their patients. What is novel is the expectation that physicians will hasten the death itself. A physician treating a dying patient has always been legal. What is becoming legal is physician-assisted suicide (PAS), specifically causing the death via suicide that the terminal illness has, at that point, failed to accomplish. A physician directly administering an agent with the intent to cause death should be physician homicide (PH) or at least physician manslaughter (PM), though it is unclear why the adjective “physician” should change the criminality of the event.

At one point, Dr. Lo appears to include Palliative Care within PAD but later clearly identifies them as distinct and separate options in his provision for patients with terminal illness. This is especially so given his statement that “perceived loss of autonomy and dignity is now a more common reason for requesting PAD than inadequate pain control.” If PAD simply was the preferred term for general end-of-life care then palliative care would obviously be one component. Since it is not, then Dr. Lo is really talking about PAS and he should use the term PAS rather than PAD and be honest about it.

Finally, Dr. Lo discusses the need to consider adverse outcomes “such as deciding whether to call 911 if distressing symptoms develop after lethal medications are ingested.” What does he expect 911 to do? I am assuming he wants their assistance in stopping the suicide process, nevermind that it was physician assisted. If a growing number of physicians are henceforth going to be expected to actively kill their patients, surely we can all agree to keep 911 as an emergency response unit of healthcare providers unambiguously dedicated to keeping their patients alive? A call to 911 seems a tacit admission that supporters of PAS aren’t exactly certain or in common agreement as to what euthanasia (“a good death”) or “Death with Dignity” is supposed to look like, and, perhaps more importantly, an admission that no one can control the dying process as well as they may believe they can. By the way, what does Dr. Lo mean by “distressing symptoms”? I thought the reason for providing PAS was that the original terminal process wasn’t going as desired and this was causing “distressing symptoms”. If the addition of PAS can cause more distressing symptoms, what has been gained through PAS? Certainly not euthanasia or “Death with Dignity”.

Discussing whether or not a physician should hasten their patient’s death for any reason is unfortunately a necessary debate given the present diversity of world views in our society. Describing that process in less specific terms such as “Physician Aid in Dying” does nothing to help that discussion. Like Neil Skjoldal said in yesterday’s blog entry, I also will “continue to advocate strongly against PAS, affirming God’s gift of life whenever and wherever I can.”

Care Dis-integration

The May 3rd edition of the New England Journal of Medicine brings us a powerful story. It is a tale of a patient, named Kenneth, written by his physician brother.

Central to the story is a delay in diagnosis, brought on by unfamiliarity with the patient as a whole person, biases against those with mental illness, presumptions and other errors familiar to those of us with an inside view of what can go wrong. The healthcare system allows these to occur through its “dis-integration.” From the story:

Rosenbaum highlights the larger problem: “Care integration is an attitude.” But this “attitude problem” affects countless U.S. patients, not just those with mental illness (or severe physical disabilities, like quadriplegia).Whose attitude, then, needs adjustment? Many doctors and nurses seethe about the profit-driven dis-integration of our health care “market” yet insist they can’t fix this mess themselves. Kenneth, no stranger to cognitive dissonance, said, Well, if they can’t fix it, who the hell can? This question becomes more urgent as our health care system’s balkanization becomes increasingly “normalized.”

I have just seen this up close. A friend of mine has a terminal illness. While he has long been well-served by his family physician, the onset of the illness brought specialty care, extensive and repeated imaging, hospitalizations, a rehabilitation facility, and no more contact with his physician. It also brought delayed diagnoses which seemed avoidable had he been seen regularly by someone who knew his story and his usual condition.

Wasn’t such familiarity what we always had hoped would come from the “specialty” of family medicine? And that years of familiarity would lead to an understanding no stranger could have? Such an understanding would give us what we longed for in medicine, such as more efficiency, avoidance of excessive and intrusive testing, smoother transitions of care, more acute perception of changes (and quicker diagnoses), and better advice.

Increasingly, however, the family physician of today can no longer fulfill the promise of the profession from decades past. Financial constraints keep him in the clinic exam room, efficiently churning through patients within a narrowing scope of practice— no longer on the wards, or in the nursing home, or performing obstetrics, or even seeing children under two. Unable to venture out because time (equals money) would be lost, he is no longer involved in the care of his patients when they need something beyond his clinic. And it is in those intense moments that he is needed the most.

I would like to have a simple answer. Kenneth’s question stings: “Well, if they can’t fix it, who the hell can?” The financial pressures are enormous, however. Costs are up for countless reasons, and to keep the money flowing, a physician becomes the engine that must keep running… inside the engine room that is the modern day clinic.

Perhaps nothing short of a major disassembling of our medical system will change that. Such change may only come from catastrophe; even then any rebuilding would take a level of insight and courage…and preparation…that are unlikely to appear in future leadership under modern pressures. If we’re ever to move toward a dream of “care integration,” however, we’ll have to start somewhere– with understanding where we are, how we got here, and where we ought to go.