Packard on History of Global Health: devastating first chapter (we need to do better)

While i intend to write more about Packard’s new book (delightfully if uncomfortably subtitled, interventions into the lives of others) once i am through with it, a paragraph in the opening chapter seemed both so important and accurate as to merit sharing immediately — particularly given the lessons it may hold for the Universal Health Coverage (e.g.) movement. It is not that what Packard has to say here is necessarily new but rather that he sums it up in a neat, indicting list of trends, on which we would all do well to reflect:


There have been remarkable continuities in how health interventions have been conceived and implemented over the past century… [that] have worked against the development of effective basic-health systems to address social determinants of health:

  1. Health interventions have been largely developed outside the countries where the health problems exist, with few attempts to seriously incorporate local perspectives or community participation in the planning process…

  2. Health planning has privileged approaches based on the application of biomedical technologies that prevent or eliminate health problems one at a time.

  3. Little attention has been given to supporting the development of basic health services.

  4. The planning of health interventions has often occurred in a crisis environment, in which there was an imperative to act fast. This mindset has privileged interventions that are simple, easy to implement, and have potential to quickly make a significant impact…

  5. Global health interventions have been empowered by faith in the superioity of Western medical knowledge and technology…

  6. Health has been linked to social and economic development — but this connection has focused primarily on how improvements in health can stimulate economic development, while ignoring the impact that social and economic developments can have on health. The social determinants of health have received little attention.


Packard notes that these trends have faltered a few times, such as with the rise in interest in learning about the “social and economic causes of ill health” in the 1920s and 30s and in the Alma Ata / health for all movement at the end of the 1970s. We seem to think of ourselves as standing at a new trend-breaking moment. Hopefully we can do better.

doctor marketplace & lack of system improvement (delhi summer illness 4)

One of the first things you learn when studying health systems is how imperfect health care markets are — limited time or ability to shop around, massive information asymmetries, etc. It is interesting, then, how very marketplace-like was my experience during my most recent illness episode. It is even more interesting, i think, that this took place within the same corporate hospital system — calling into question the very benefits of such an aggregated system.


To briefly recap,  i had (still have, actually) symptoms consistent with chikungunya,  [~chicken-goon-yuh] which is currently breaking out in Delhi but which was not actually confirmed in my case. i managed to visit three doctors in as many days to try to figure out what was going on, which is probably the most ‘shop-around’ approach i have ever taken to a single illness episode. [The desperately curious can read the previous posts on observations from navigating the hospital and health system while being sick: here, here & here.]


First, i saw my regular GP. Then, with some urging, i saw a recommended GP. In the interim, i had also scheduled an appointment with a rheumatologist given (a) relevant family history and (b) that my only early symptoms were joint pain , weakness & fatigue — no fever nor rash. In this post, i just focus on the GP visits.


The visit to my regular GP on Tuesday led to my being tested (IgM) for chikungunya as well as dengue and malaria (as precautions than really being indicated). i learned on Wednesday morning that the IgM was negative but as my white blood cells were high, i was put on an antibiotic (for a ‘post-viral infection’) and given the obligatory paired antacid + anti-inflammatory as well as calcium for unexplained reasons. i actually don’t think an antibiotic was indicated and was a bit annoyed when i asked if anything else could be causing the joint pain and was told no, which is of course a silly statement since plenty of things cause joint pain, not all of them infectious.


In the interim, through the healthcare recommendation grapevine that is Delhi, i learned about another doctor who was recommending a different chikungunya test (and promoting himself as a chikungunya guru). With some urging, i followed-up there was well on Wednesday afternoon, for a (super) special clinic double-feature day.


The second GP i saw was in the same corporate hospital system but at a different branch, less than 5 km away. i came in with high hopes for the recommended doctor, most of which were dashed over the course of the short visit. i should note that for this visit, my (male) colleague kindly accompanied and the (male) doctor spent much of the limited attention he gave to either or us (rather than his computer screen or his phone) addressed to my boss. i have never felt so blatantly part of a capitated (pay-by-patient or ‘per head’) system as i did over the course of this week of doctor visits. (A particularly endearing moment came when i asked the doctor to explain my morning’s lab report and why the white blood cells might be elevated — and i was told to google the answer.)


The doctor spot-diagnosed me with chikungunya while i was still shuffling in the door, before i was able to sit down and say anything beyond ‘joint pain.’ Perhaps some patients are impressed by this sort of act. i was not. The doctor did very little looking at me and certainly never touched me. i had to really push to get out a description of the specific type of joint pain i was experiencing. Much of the time he addressed himself to a desktop computer screen, where he edited old case notes as mine, such that my print-out included inaccuracies, such as stating that i have no medical allergies (i do, including to some painkillers and anti-inflammatories; moreover, he never actually asked me this question).


At first the doctor tried to talk me out of getting another blood test (PCR, this time) since it was expensive (true) and since he was so certain i had chikungunya (ass).


He then spent at least a minute of our already poorly utilized 10-minute appointment slot to denigrate my normal GP, in a mock-humble way that acknowledged him as a junior doctor and my usual GP as a senior doctor — but also that he was much more in the trenches at his location, as opposed to her more posh and secluded (<5 km away) location. (Again, recall these are both part of the same hospital system.) He was seeing all the chikungunya cases and she wasn’t, so he knew how to spot-diagnose and which test to run.


He then told me that when my test came back positive, as he was sure it would (it didn’t), i should switch doctors. He also poo-pooed her having prescribed me calcium and instead prescribed a multivitamin; he also prescribed a different painkiller + antacid combination for no apparent reason. (i should note that neither doctor actually asked what i was already taking in the way of vitamins before prescribing these to me — i went ahead and bought everything i was prescribed so i could show off the detritus collected for treating a suspected virus over the course of three days.)



Perhaps to some patients, this kind of confidence and blatant salesmanship are appealing and hearken to days of doctors-as-gods. Not to me. So, at a minimum, as a salesman, this doctor has no idea how to read a customer.


In fact, his actions seem the very definition of not working in a system or a sign that the system is not working. He could have, instead, said he would call my regular GP and tell her about the extent of the outbreak and about which test to run. Or report it upwards so that there could at least be systemic learning within the hospital system. But, no, he opted to promote himself. And perhaps this is what the ‘system’ incentivizes. But, if so, then what exactly is the benefit of being part of a hospital system if neither my personal records nor basic system- or city-wide learnings can be shared among doctors within and across sites?


To return to the initial issue of whether healthcare functions as a market, to the extent that it does, people often rely on quality indicators that may not be directly related to accurate diagnosis or perfect treatment (which are sometimes hard to assess from the patient point-of-view). So, there is cleanliness and comfort of the surroundings (the corporate chain does reasonably well on this). There is whether you feel listened to and respected as a patient (fail). Or, if your doctor isn’t particularly nice (we all secretly want to be treated by Dr. House), you should at least trust him or her but neither GP in this case did anything particularly trust-earning (and did some things that were trust-burning from my way of thinking). There is convenience (yes in terms of online scheduling but no in terms of tracking patients through the system).


And, one would think, there would be a benefit of aggregating learnings and best practices across the system — but this appears to not be the case. The corporates may want to think again about how they are fulfilling quality demands.


some posts… no shit

some posts maybe you are never ready to write. nevertheless, the news of marc roberts‘s death over the weekend seems to warrant both an immediate response and the response that is just right. he seemed to usually be able to manage these simultaneously but, given the sense of time that follows a completion of a life well-lived and well-said, i’ll err on the side of the former.

i won’t claim to have known marc as well as many but i knew him well enough to respect him, which means, perhaps, seeing past rough first impressions. he pronounced himself a reformed economist at some point early enough to influence me: politics and the realities of implementation and the curves of ethics-in-real-life became the subject of his writing and his teaching and we are better for it.

marc had a standard line — a bit of a trap — that he would lead you  into (funnier to watch others go than to realize you had followed in). you might make a comment; maybe even one you thought useful. then he would start. he grew up in jersey. [fill in a few lines about the roughness of growing up in a steel town in jersey.] they had a saying back then, he’d say, that would apply to the point you’d just raised.

no shit.

familiar and biting each time (after the first, which was less pleasant). what always made it ok was the sense that he was, and wanted you to be, in pursuit of the right questions. he raised questions of distribution when everyone else was looking at average treatment effects. he was a reformed economist when the economist profession was booming. he wanted to know about implementation when everyone was looking at theoretical equations. and wanted to know about practical theory when everyone was looking at the sexy result of the moment.

we were through “pinning butterflies,” i was told indirectly by marc. categorizing of treatments or results wasn’t what we needed — we needed to explain things and try to make sense of them.

and then to do better.

some posts you are never ready to write. but some some are scratched in before you even sit down to it and some give you a sense that you shouldn’t wait. with marc, the gist sank in early, so one doesn’t have to do much work to imagine he’s still around. which is quite a good thing.

we need his voice. it’ll be missed but, as with all good teachers, it, with its gruff accent, is hardly gone.

thank you, marc. (