Sunday, September 12, 2010

Social Determinants, Personal Responsibility, and Health System Outcomes

Whole Foods, Inc., CEO John Mackey has been both an outspoken critic of the Obama administration's health reform plan and an advocate for “personal accountability” suggesting that people’s health behaviors – including such things as smoking, poor diet, obesity, and lack of exercise -- account for much of their health risk, and thus people should be held responsible for the poor choices that they make, receiving fewer health benefits if they have not taken the steps to maintain their own health. He has recently made this argument in an op-ed piece in the Wall St. Journal, “The Whole Foods alternative to Obamacare” (August 11, 2010). Subtitled “Eight things we can do to improve health care without adding to the deficit”, Mackey runs through a list of proposals that feature inequity, maintaining and increasing the health and wealth of those who already have the most of it; that would create enormous increases in insurance company profit, would not meet the health needs of those who have needs, and would end up costing a fortune. The “controls” are all on services that would benefit people, the “freedom” is all for corporations to continue to have unfettered access to excessive profit.

All countries with socialized medicine ration health care by forcing their citizens to wait in lines to receive scarce treatments,” he writes. Of course, his definition of “socialized” includes the health systems of every single developed country in the world outside the US, whether they have a National Health Service (e.g., UK), single-payer insurance (e.g., Canada) or a mixed system that includes private insurers that are regulated (e.g., Switzerland, Germany). What is unsaid by Mackey is that the system he proposes (much like the current one in the US) does not eliminate lines for everyone but rations by wealth and insurance status. CEOs like him do not have to wait in lines, but the further down the socioeconomic ladder you are, the longer the line becomes, until, at the end, unlike in those other countries, there are tens of millions of people who can’t get on the line at all. Unsurprisingly, these proposals are likely to resonate with and please the readers of the Wall St. Journal’s editorial pages. The US health system is not only incredibly expensive (not because it covers everyone, which it doesn’t, but because of the huge profits taken out of the system by Mackey’s fellow CEOs) and unfair, but it performs poorly on virtually all dimensions (see the Commonwealth Fund’s 2010 report, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall”, with results summarized in the attached figure).

More insidiously, however, some of these arguments can appeal to many others, who see sense in expecting people to take “responsibility” for their health and act in healthful ways: “Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.” Eat nutritious food, exercise, don’t smoke or take illegal drugs or drink to excess, etc. This is good advice, and all of us should try to take it. I’m sure that it is advice that many of the employees of Whole Foods – the ones who are young and healthy – appreciate, because it validates what they do, and see – the “outcome” is that they are young and healthy. It is possible that there are other Whole Foods employees, not young and healthy but older and/or with chronic disease – who many not find his advice, or the company’s health plan, to be of such great value. His essay may be a call to action for those who, given some combination of youth, genetic luck, good health, and socioeconomic opportunity, are still not doing all they can.

But health behaviors – and the health care system – are not the only determinants of health. Indeed, the Determinants of Health model from Healthy People 2010 (see figure) make clear that there are m any factors that impact health, most of which are ignored by Mackey and his ilk. They are also not all going to be addressed by health system reform, whether that in the current “Obama” plan or even in a more extensive change, advocated by people like me and the Physicians for a National Health Program to be more like the other, much higher performing systems in other countries. That system change is necessary, but not, in itself, sufficient. The environment, both physical and socio-economic, have tremendous impact. In addition, issues not specifically on this model, such as the impact of race (racism, not perhaps overt but in terms of the impact of “perception of race” on those of color). These are the Social Determinants of Health, and have been written about extensively, in a literature that is either unknown to or rejected by Mackey and his friends. Perhaps the clearest exposition of the Social Determinants is by Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who has written extensively on this topic. However, she has also developed a cartoon depicting how the social determinants of health intersect with the health care system as well as how the different levels of the health care system (primary, secondary, tertiary prevention, and treatment) interact with each other. Her slide show, “Social Determinants of Health and Equity, the Impacts of Racism on Health” is available on line and contains these cartoons. They demonstrate, through the use of a cliff analogy, the role of these different factors. Although very useful for teaching children, their clarity is also of great value for teaching health professionals. And they might even be understood by CEOs.

With Dr. Jones’ permission, Neal Palafox, MD, of the University of Hawaii, produced slides based on her model, one of which is reproduced here. It represents health risk as a cliff. If someone falls off, we can provide medical care (the ambulance); however this is variably available for people (access to care). If we can identify diseases and treat them before they require expensive care, this is secondary prevention (the net also represents “safety net” health services). Better yet, we can provide primary prevention – keep people from falling off the cliff (the fence). Some of this is achieved through the individual behavior changes like those advocated by Mackey. The social determinants, however, which he ignores, are represented by the distance that people are from the edge of the cliff; some folks are at greater risk. As Dr. Jones also develops in her slides, many of those same people are those who have less protection by the fence, or the net, or for whom, when they do get sick (fall off the cliff) the ambulance is not there, or even “going in the wrong direction”.

Most of the discussion of these issues are among those of us who are relatively privileged. We may not be wealthy CEOs like John Mackey, but we are educated, literate, and consumers of ideas. Most of us are at least middle-class; even those who may say “no, I don’t have money” are usually in that status temporarily (e.g., from being students), but have the values and self-efficacy that comes from our class, socioeconomic, and educational background. This group certainly includes all the politicians, pundits, academics and successful businesspeople – and medical students. It may be hard to believe, but the vast majority of people are not in that group. Check out income demographics: according to the US census, in 2000 only 12.29% of households – not individuals – had incomes over $100,000 a year, and only 2.37% over $200,000; 2008 estimates indicate household income >$100,000 is the top quintile, and the top 5% is >$180,000.

We absolutely need health reform, real reform, that will begin to move us in the direction of the high-performing health systems in other countries. We also need to encourage healthful behaviors. However, rather than penalizing others whose circumstances – genetic, socioeconomic, social, racial, physical – make that more difficult, we need to develop programs, that require, as Dr. Jones notes, “…collaboration with multiple sectors outside of health, including education, housing, labor, justice, transportation, agriculture and environment.”

And we need to get started.

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