Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nutrition and dietary guidelines: stirring the (policy) pot

At first glance, federal nutrition policy seemed to be an unusual topic for our Georgetown Health Policy Seminar for family physicians. As described in a recent JAMA Internal Medicine editorial, future doctors receive little formal instruction about healthy dietary habits. An accompanying commentary noted that to promote effective change, nutritional education in medical school should encompass much more than memorizing facts about biochemistry and metabolism:

Medical students and residents must also develop competence in the interpersonal and communication skills needed to counsel patients about behavior change and to perform motivational interviewing. ... They must learn to work in interprofessional teams with dietitians and other skilled health professionals to help patients make needed dietary changes. ... Just as medical students and residents must be taught to become antismoking advocates, they need to be taught how to advocate for healthier food environments as part of their role as future physician-citizens.
The USDA Food Pyramid, circa 1990.

Every five years beginning in 1980, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly issued the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which serve not only to help citizens make healthy dietary choices but also to guide federal programs that support school lunches and supplemental nutrition assistance for low-income individuals and families. However, a recent analysis suggested that adhering to recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines to consume more potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D, and calcium would add hundreds of dollars to an average person's annual food budget; potassium alone would add $380. In contrast, increasing intakes of saturated fat and added sugar are associated with lower food costs.
Current (2010) U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Last year, former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman argued in Health Affairs that there is a "disconnect" between federal food and farm policies and evidence-based dietary recommendations:

On one hand, with obesity-related health costs rapidly rising, the federal government has encouraged people to make healthy dietary choices through efforts such as Let's Move! and MyPlate. On the other hand, the federal government spends billions of dollars on traditional agricultural commodity programs that fail to reinforce the kind of healthy dietary choices outlined in federal dietary guidelines.

Providing greater access to nutritious food options at affordable prices doesn't mean that people will purchase them, but is a necessary first step in realizing the potential of nutrition policy to reduce obesity and improve population health.

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Forecasting and adapting to the family medicine workforce shortage

Projecting future physician workforce needs is a challenging calculation that must take multiple variables into account to avoid missing its mark. In the mid-1990s, the American Medical Association confidently predicted that the penetration of managed care would lead to a large "physician surplus" and convinced Congress to cap the number of graduate medical education (GME) positions subsidized by the Medicare program. Two decades later, there is a widespread consensus that the U.S. is actually experiencing a physician shortage that will worsen with population growth, the aging of the baby boomer generation, and an influx of newly insured from the Affordable Care Act.

Although medical schools have expanded to meet the anticipated demand for doctors, the AMA and others are still pushing for the GME cap to be lifted so that new medical graduates will have enough places to train. But how has the specialty of family medicine fared, and what else can be done to extend capacity of the existing primary care workforce? These questions were the subjects of two recent Georgetown University Health Policy seminars.

Image courtesy of the American Academy of Family Physicians

Modest gains in the numbers of U.S. and foreign medical graduates matching into family medicine residency programs over the past five years will fall well short of supplying an additional 52,000 primary care physicians by 2025, a shortage projected by the Robert Graham Center. A recent issue of Health Affairs examined potential strategies to extend primary care capacity in the absence of an (increasingly unlikely) surge in generalist trainees. For example, telehealth technologies could lighten the load on family physicians by promoting patient self-management of chronic conditions; improving medication adherence; and facilitating real-time specialist consultations. A more radical and controversial proposal aims to provide EMT-style training to a new profession of "primary care technicians" who could provide basic primary care services under the supervision of a physician, freeing physicians to "focus on patients with more complex conditions."

As our discussion pointed out, though, these proposals have serious disadvantages. By reducing face-to-face interactions, telehealth could easily make family medicine less rewarding. Family physicians who end up seeing only patients with multiple complicated chronic conditions could burn out faster, leaving even fewer in the workforce. As a broad cognitive rather than a narrow, procedure-focused specialty, family medicine is less likely to be suited to care by technicians than, say, anesthesiology or gastroenterology. Finally, given the persistent and growing income gap between family physicians and subspecialists, the real solution to the primary care shortage may still be staring us in the face.

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tapping the potential applications of mHealth

Mobile health, or "mHealth" for short, describes technology that allows clinicians or public health professionals to monitor and/or deliver health-related messages to patients via cellular phones, tablets, or other wireless devices. mHealth applications can complement and expand care provided at traditional face-to-face visits, and exploring their untapped potential to improve health in the U.S. and abroad was the topic of a recent Georgetown University Health Policy Seminar.


One popular mHealth initiative is the text4baby program, a public-private partnership launched in 2010 that sends free text messages to expectant and new mothers containing appointment reminders, safety alerts, and general prenatal and postpartum health advice. Smartphone apps now include a variety of self-management tools for weight loss, physical activity, and chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently moved to regulate health apps that act as medical devices (e.g., electrocardiogram) and would pose safety risks to patients if they malfunctioned. However, the vast majority of health apps used by consumers will not require FDA approval.


In the developing world, "mHealth projects are launching at an exponential rate," declared a recent issue of Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine. Cellular phones have made real-time communication with field workers routine and allowed teams of nurses and midwives to attend births in rural Bangladesh. However, the field of mHealth is hampered by a lack of evaluations of health outcomes and concerns about sustainability of successful interventions:

Using phones to advance public health isn’t as simple as it seems. Researchers are grappling with complex questions that have already doomed hundreds of mHealth projects: How do you know whether mHealth projects are really working and worth the investment? How do you conquer the phenomenon known as “pilotitis,” and scale effective strategies into health systems that have regional or national impacts? And how do you make sure these projects are long-lasting additions, instead of the public health equivalent of a dropped call?

We debated the types of policies that would be most likely to encourage innovations that make a positive difference for individuals and populations. How can we avoid creating "digital divides" that could worsen health disparities? Should state and local governments provide direct grants or tax relief to promising startups? Or should the central planners get out of the way and trust free market forces to produce the future of mHealth?

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Learning from primary care in Canada and Europe

What can family medicine in the U.S. learn from the organization of primary care in other Western countries? In this month's Georgetown University Health Policy Seminar, we explored two recent studies that shed light on successes and challenges of primary care reforms in Ontario, Canada and the European Union.


Starting in 2000, policymakers in Ontario implemented a primary care reform strategy based on five national objectives, which are strikingly similar to many proposed U.S. reforms: "1) increasing access to primary care organizations that would provide a defined set of services to a defined population; 2) increasing emphasis on health promotion, disease and injury prevention, and chronic disease management; 3) expanding all-day, every-day access to essential services; 4) establishing interdisciplinary primary care teams; and 5) facilitating coordination and integration with other health services." As a result, an almost entirely fee-for-service primary care system was gradually replaced with a mixture of salary-based, capitation-based, and blended fee-for-service payment models by 2012. Far from being demoralized by the rapid changes, Ontario primary care physicians actually reported increasing satisfaction during this transition period.


Another study in the same issue of Health Affairs analyzed associations between the strength of primary care systems in 31 European countries, national health expenditures, and measures of population health. The study found that countries with more robust primary care had lower hospitalization rates and less socioeconomic inequality in self-rated health, in addition to better chronic disease outcomes. However, these advantages came at the cost of higher baseline health care spending, though spending growth appeared to be slower in countries with a comprehensive primary care bedrock.

What lessons should U.S. policymakers take home from this research?

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Monday, September 16, 2013

The sense and nonsense of CT screening for lung cancer

Supporters of evidence-based preventive medicine cheered when the Affordable Care Act required Medicare and private health insurers to provide first-dollar coverage for all preventive services assigned an "A" or "B" recommendation grade by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. However, editorials published in JAMA and BMJ earlier this year expressed concerns that explicitly linking Task Force determinations with coverage decisions would politicize the guideline development process. Also, since the USPSTF is permitted to consider only clinical effectiveness, not cost effectiveness, it could potentially put taxpayers on the hook for cost-prohibitive screenings.

In this context, our August 2013 Georgetown University Health Policy Seminar debated the USPSTF's recent draft recommendation statement that endorsed annual low-dose CT screening for lung cancer in longtime smokers. This Grade "B" recommendation applies to "healthy persons with a 30 pack-year or more history of smoking who are ages 55 to 79 years and have smoked within the past 15 years," a population that includes up to 8 million persons in the U.S. Using data from the National Lung Screening Trial and five modeling studies, the Task Force estimated that implementation of their recommendation could prevent up to 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year. They downplayed the potential harms of false positive screens (which affected 1 in 4 participants in the NLST), overdiagnosis, and radiation-induced cancers.

Images from the Lung Cancer Foundation's Demand A CT Scan campaign.

Lung cancer screening advocacy groups, which had been pressing for years for patients at high risk of lung cancer to "demand a CT scan," were quick to praise the USPSTF's decision. Notably, the American Cancer Society's guideline for lung cancer screening, also released this year, advocates a more conservative approach: initiating a shared decision-making discussion about benefits and harms of lung cancer screening in high-risk persons in otherwise good health, rather than simply recommending screening. The USPSTF's approach is certain to be far more costly, and may discourage clinicians from explaining the many downsides of this screening test to their patients.

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Monday, June 24, 2013

Caring for the underserved: The National Health Service Corps

Forty years ago, Eric Redman's classic book The Dance of Legislation provided a compelling "insider's account" of how the U.S. Senate worked by following the winding path of Public Law 91-623 (The Emergency Health Personnel Act of 1970), which created the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). Envisioned by Seattle pediatrician Abraham Bergman, MD as a way to recruit idealistic young physicians to "doctor deficient" communities throughout the U.S., the NHSC and its authorizing legislation successfully navigated a perilous policymaking process, an unsupportive Administration, and the threat of a pocket veto to become law in the final days of the 91st Congress. Later legislation added scholarship and loan repayment programs to the NHSC, and recent funding increases provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act have tripled the size of the corps from 3600 to nearly 10,000.


In this month's Georgetown University Health Policy Seminar, we critically evaluated the accomplishments and limitations of the NHSC in improving access to care for the medically underserved. A literature review by Dr. Robert Politzer and colleagues in 2000 found mixed results: although the NHSC relieved health professional shortages in many communities over the years, physicians often did not stay in these communities beyond their 2-year service commitments, and the neediest areas were actually less likely to be successful in recruiting clinicians. The absence of a service analogous to the National Resident Matching Program meant that the NHSC placement process favored well-organized communities with more resources, rather than matching greater numbers of clinicians to areas with greater needs. At around the same time, a commentary by Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan advocated for a more expansive role for the NHSC in the 21st century, including options to practice community-oriented primary care, in urban hospitals, in public health, and in prison and international health settings.


Currently, the collective impacts of the individual and employer mandates and guaranteed insurance issue provisions of the Affordable Care Act on underserved communities remain uncertain. Will the implementation of the ACA make the NHSC less necessary, or will projected gaps in coverage among immigrants and Medicaid-ineligible adults continue to leave many areas with health professional shortages? Physicians of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds tend to migrate to affluent areas, and retirements of small-town family doctors may end up relegating some communities to welcoming a new crop of primary care clinicians every few years. Are there alternative health policies that could attract primary care and subspecialist physicians to areas where they are most needed?

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine

Monday, May 20, 2013

Biased research, aggressive sales, harmful drugs

Approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market a new drug is a critical waypoint along the path to profits for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Unfortunately, recent case studies have illustrated that FDA approval does not necessarily provide assurances of effectiveness and safety. In this month's Georgetown University Health Policy seminar, we discussed two examples, anemia drugs and the diabetes drug rosiglitazone (Avandia), which were prominently featured in recent articles by Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post.

Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

The original impetus for the development of the anemia drugs Epogen, Procrit, and Aranesp, which mimic the  actions of the hormone erythropoietin, was to spare dialysis patients with severe anemia the inconvenience and risks associated with periodic blood transfusions. However, noted Whoriskey, pharmaceutical companies moved aggressively to market these drugs to a far larger patient population who were much less likely to benefit from them:

The trouble would arise as the drugmakers won FDA approval for vastly expanded uses, pushing it in larger doses, for milder anemia and for patients with a wider array of illnesses. Very quickly, the market included nearly all dialysis patients, not just the roughly 16 percent who required blood transfusions. The size of average doses would more than triple. And over the next five years, the FDA would approve it to treat anemia in patients with cancer and AIDS, as well as those getting hip and knee surgery.

Doctors were motivated to give more doses of these drugs due to generous financial incentives (estimated at between $100,000 and $300,000 annually for a typical oncologist) and the seductive thinking that if some drug was good, more was better. Even the publication of a 1998 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing no survival advantage to boosting hematocrit levels to normal ranges in cardiac patients did little to discourage overprescribing. Not until 14 years later did an independent researcher obtain access to the complete study report from the FDA and conclude that the NEJM authors had used statistical slight-of-hand to obscure an increased risk of heart attacks and death in the normal-hematocrit group. In the meantime, lobbyists working for the drug manufacturers successfully blocked efforts by Medicare administrators to stop paying for the higher (harmful) doses.

Similarly, the evidence that rosiglitazone (Avandia) increased the risk of heart attacks was slow to come to light, due in part to the drugmaker's research emphasis on the surrogate outcome of glycemic control. Although a 2007 meta-analysis first sounded the alarm about rosiglitazone's cardiovascular risks, the manufacturer successfully stalled regulatory action in the U.S. for three more years, during which thousands of new patients were prescribed the drug.

Could the FDA and other U.S. government agencies do more to protect patients from the effects of biased research and aggressive sales tactics for newly marketed drugs? What concrete steps could health policymakers take to encourage research to identify unexpected harms earlier in the drug approval process?

- Kenny Lin, MD
  Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
  Department of Family Medicine
  Georgetown University School of Medicine