The Business of Drugs

I went to my first drug rep dinner the other night at Smith & Wollensky in Houston’s Highland Village.  The high-end steaks and 20+ bottles of wine left nothing to be desired by the nurses and physicians in attendance.   Research shows that being wowed with a nice meal influences later decision-making.  Yes, I could see how the memory of one of those juicy steaks could prompt a doctor to select a particular medication.

Special thanks to Joe Gibes for bringing to light how pharma business practices stymie important medical treatments.  I worked in business for over 7 years, and I saw two types of businesspeople.  One type focused on presenting the merits of the product and gave the buyer room to evaluate it and make a decision on a purchase.  This person would refrain from the pressure sales pitch and would frankly state what the product could and could not do.  Sometimes this went so far as recommending a competitor who sold a product that fit the customer’s needs better.  The other type of salesman I encountered had a different approach.   Marketing techniques were more about allurement rather than presenting one’s ware.  These folks were jovial types always given to conversation, but all the backslapping often left the customer with an uneasy feeling.

Business reform in general is needed in our country, but more is at stake when unethical business practices impact the field of medicine.  Since a person’s well-being is in the balance, extra care and protections must be employed.  I often hear medical students comment, “I can’t really do anything about the drug business.  It’s just the way things are.  I might as well enjoy the free meal.”  But don’t we owe it to our patients to remove any taint from medical care when their very lives are concerned?  Our Savior was a humble man, and there is no doubt his humility opened the door for His effective healing ministry.  Such a disposition sets an entirely different tone for healthcare, which our medical system desperately needs.

Physicians, Technicians, Clinicians, and Providers

A few weeks ago I had lunch with two doctors who are currently in a residency training program.  In a moment of candor, both of them remarked, “I feel like I’m being trained as a technician.”

This comment struck me as tremendously important (and not just because I am heavily involved in their training and their words highlight my failure as a teacher!).  Because if their perception is correct — if we are indeed instilling in future physicians the ethos of the technician — then we had best be prepared for the inevitable results.  “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail;”  to a technician, every problem looks like a technical problem, one which needs to be solved by a technique or technology.  The dizzying upward spiral of health care costs is driven largely by the increasing use of increasingly expensive technologies;  training a technician workforce can only exacerbate the problem.  The technical bias towards the automatic, unreflective use of technology simply because it exists will lead to more of the inappropriate use of technological interventions that are the bread-and-butter of hospital ethics consultations.

But more importantly, not all problems in medicine are technical problems;  some are singularly resistant to simplistic, technical solutions.  For some conditions, the doctor is the best drug:  his or her human, caring, and compassionate presence, just being with the patient.  Yet to the technical mindset, this simply attending to the patient (from which we get the expression “Attending Physician”) is discounted in favor of doing things to patients;  and while both the being and the doing are necessary for the practice of good medicine, the standardization, mechanization, and industrialization of medicine in our day has heavily favored the latter at the expense of the former.  More often than our technical mindset acknowledges, it is better not to do something to the patient;  but this option is not in the purview of the technical mindset.  We always feel we must do something, and medical caring  often suffers as a result.  The central economy of medicine, the physician-patient relationship, is lost in the technical mindset.

The ongoing industrialization of medicine is reflected in and driven by the terms we use to describe doctors.  In the May 25th JAMA, the authors of an essay entitled “Dear Provider” wrote of the replacement of the title “clinician” with “provider.”  The authors believe that this semantic change could be subliminally altering professional self-concept and behavior, “shifting the clinical encounter from patient-centered to task-oriented.  Nowadays, patients are quickly ‘plugged in’ to templated workups;  progress notes have become computerized inventories of completed tasks;  and when we ask residents on teaching rounds ‘What do you think?’ we often hear ‘I think I want to get an MRI.’  It appears that the time and effort spent by providers packaging patients through the system is displacing most other clinical activities.”

Packaging patients through the system. Sounds like a technician’s handiwork to me.  How did we get to this?  Do we turn back or go on?

 

Love and Respect

A fellow family physician who cares for people at a clinic in Central America wrote about the death of one of her long-time patients in an e-mail last week.  The woman came to the clinic barely able to breathe and with her heart failing.  As they tried to stabilize her to take her to a hospital for further care, she knew that she was dying and requested not to be taken there.  She said “I want to die here, with the people who loved and respected me, my clinic.”

She expressed the understanding that there are some things that are more important than having the ability to treat diseases effectively and extend people’s lives.  We should strive to provide high quality, effective medical treatment, but caring for people is more than that.  It includes loving them and showing them respect as sisters and brothers in the human family.

All of our patients eventually die.  When they do will they know that they were loved and respected by us as we cared for them?

Confession of a Eugenicist

 

I have a confession to make:  I am a eugenicist.

 

I am a family physician who provides obstetrical care.  I love taking care of moms and babies.

It has insidiously become the Standard of Care to offer to all pregnant women testing that will inform them whether there is an increased risk that their unborn children have certain genetic abnormalities or birth defects.  If I do not offer these tests to all pregnant women, I am considered to have provided substandard care, and the wrath of a society that tolerates Nothing But The Best will descend quickly upon me.  If I do offer these tests, I am practicing “Good Medicine” — and eugenics.

 

How did eugenics become Good Medicine again?

 

I don’t want to practice eugenics.  Yet I am compelled to by the Standard of Care;  and the Standard of Care is shaped by the existence and marketing of these tests.  It’s the old story in our technophilic society:  we are constrained to use a technology merely because the technnology exists.

 

Why were such tests even developed in the first place?  Was it only for diagnostic purposes,  simply to provide information to prospective parents?  Of course not.  Clearly these tests were developed to help guide therapy;  and because the primary “therapeutic” option is induced abortion of fetuses who are not up to snuff, it seems equally clear that eugenic considerations drove their development.  So, the eugenic ideal drives development of eugenic technology, which, marketed and disseminated, drives the Standard of Care, which drives what I do in my office and provides the ammunition for the licensing board — and malpractice lawyers — who are looking over my shoulder.

 

Thus am I an unwilling eugenicist.  Thus am I compelled to do the dirty work for the eugenicists of our society.

(This is not to say that all parents who opt to undergo this testing do so for eugenic purposes.  I realize that some do so solely for diagnosis.  I am writing here about the development and mandatory offering of such tests.)

 

Maybe the time has come for a new  medical association.  Instead of the AMA, perhaps we should inaugurate the HMA:  the Hippocratic Medical Association, the members of which will adhere to a different Standard, who will pledge to uphold the ideals behind the Hippocratic Oath.  The members of this association would return to the ethos of that Oath which, according to anthropologist Margaret Mead,  marked one of the great turning-points in the history of the human race, because, “For the first time in our tradition, there was a complete separation between killing and curing . . . One profession . . were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect–the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child . . .”

 

The Imago Dei Has Something to Offer

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4

The Rapport sculpture, Reynolds Medical Bldg., TAMHSC

In my two years of involvement in the ethics community at a state medical school, I’ve found that the Christian concept of the imago dei speaks to unaddressed problems in bioethics.  The philosophy of materialism so dominates medical study and practice that descriptions of the individual do not rise much past the biological system that is the body.  Theological and, to a large extent, metaphysical explanations are excluded.  This leaves ideas on ethical behavior merely as encouragement to be nice or to ensure individual choice.

The Bible uses many terms to describe the human being, including nephesh, ruach, lebh, basar, psyche, soma, and sarx.  None of these descriptions falls into a neat, Western, body-soul-spirit framework.  These words instead speak of a richness that extends far beyond any reductionist view of the person.  The doctrine that people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, 9:6) gives us insight into human purpose and ethical behavior toward others.

Last fall, I presented a poster at a symposium and included in it a paragraph on using the imago dei as a basis for a theory of personhood.  A medical researcher nearby left her poster and asked me what data I used to support my conclusions.  I explained that my paper examined the theoretical constructs we use when treating our patients.  It never occurred to her that she had, or might need, a philosophical framework in order to interpret her own data.  Medical practitioners need to recognize the body as one aspect of the whole person formed in a way to reflect God, even to represent Him in the world.  Ultimately, an understanding of our humanity in terms of the imago dei points to the new Adam who in His blameless life was, and is, the image unmarred.

 

The Philanthropic Principle

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-2

The Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas

As I sit writing this article on the 21st floor of M.D. Anderson’s Pickens Tower, I survey the names that dot the skyline of the Texas Medical Center: St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, the Methodist Hospital, Baylor (Baptist) College of Medicine—all philanthropic ventures founded by Christians.  Today, their respective denominations are only nominally involved, providing some guidance for chaplaincy programs, some of which include Muslim services.  Granted, these medical institutions are now massive, multi-million dollar operations, yet many of their congregations have significant wealth that could be used to provide funding.  Obviously, they are plagued by the theological waywardness of their respective churches, but other more traditional churches lack involvement in health care in a similar fashion.  In speaking with a pastor of a large Baptist megachurch, I learned that they had stopped investigating opportunities to build a charitable medical clinic because of the fear of lawsuits.  Financial and physician resources were at their disposal, but such a ministry was a risk they were not willing to take.

During my year at Trinity in 2008-2009, I made several trips to Lawndale Community Church in downtown Chicago.  As many of you know, Lawndale has built an extensive medical clinic for the people of that neighborhood.  Though drawing its membership from some of the poorest of people, Lawndale has made it a priority to spread the Gospel through practical programs ranging from sponsoring a pizza parlor to providing medical care.  In Christian circles some mention that poorer patients look for opportunities to win cash through lawsuits, but Lawndale views medical outreach as a necessary risk in their pursuit of Christian goals.

 

Baptist Medical Centre, Nalerigu, Ghana

Today, unfortunately, we face the trend of Christian groups pulling out of medical care.  American Christianity now boasts some of the largest churches ever, with extensive programs and services that include multi-site ventures and online attractions.  Few, however, see medical care as a main function of the church.  Take the Baptist Medical Centre (BMC) in northern Ghana, for example.  BMC, like other Christian hospitals founded by Americans in Africa, is facing the withdrawal of American financial support for its mission.  Part of the reasoning behind the separation is to allow Ghanaians to mature in their leadership of such projects.  This is certainly a proper goal.  However, much of the termination in sponsorship is based on the idea that hospitals siphon off funding that could be better used in programs that are specifically evangelistic.  The fact of the matter is that chaplaincies in hospitals provide excellent ways to present the Gospel to people who would avoid any other Christian ministry.  The Muslim population is one of the major groups BMC serves, and these people would never enter a Christian building otherwise.  The fact of the matter is that pastors (not to mention Christian doctors and nurses) stationed at the hospital have a constant opportunity to communicate the hope and healing of Jesus.  No pastor hidden behind church doors here.

Conflict between two philosophies of health care in America has reached a fever pitch.  The medical field is marked by a battle between health care based on government oversight versus medical services maintained by profit found in the marketplace.  I recommend we reconsider medical care based on philanthropy as a third option.  There is great wealth to draw from, and health care is tailor-made to work hand and hand with the Gospel of Jesus.

For more information about Christian philanthropy and medical care, visit these websites:

The Faile Foundation of the Baptist Medical Centre, Nalerigu, Ghana

Lawndale Christian Health Center, Chicago, IL

Baptist Medical Dental Fellowship

Christian Community Health Fellowship