11 July 2015

Health: it's complicated

At lower levels of general health we have a good idea about what's needed: basic sanitation, inoculations, and education about hygiene, for starters. A benign government with funds can get things done. It gets a lot more complicated at the health levels prevailing in western countries. Here cause and effect are far more difficult to identify; there are huge numbers of, and possible interactions between, lifestyles and interventions that affect health. And these are changing constantly as our scientific knowledge grows. As well, lobbies are adept at influencing policy in their favour, often at the expense of the general health of the population. This is where an outcome-based approach can succeed where existing policy seems to have lost its way and is likely to be generating diminishing - even negative - returns.

Jerome Burn, here, points out some of the flaws of evidence based medicine as practised in the rich countries. He quotes Dr David Unwin, a general practitioner in Liverpool, UK:
We had to balance evidence based medicine – you come with a problem; I give you a solution – with evidence based practise. That means drawing on my years of clinical experience, rather than just relying on guidelines, and applying it to patient’s own experience. They are the expert on their lives, what they need and what works for them. Without taking that into account you are not going to change anything.
Mr Burn continues:

Even if charities or the government dug deep into their pockets and began to run many more RCT’s [Randomised Control Trials] on lifestyle changes, they are the wrong tool to use. The lifestyle approach we need to integrate much more effectively into medicine doesn’t involve just changing one thing – drug or no drug – it involves doing lots of things at once – for example: different diets and more exercise combined with psychological techniques such as stress reduction. RCTs have difficulties with such multiple interventions. Yet when they are tested they often turn out more effective than drugs.
The existing rich countries' healthcare systems don't encourage the approach that Dr Unwin and Mr Burn are advocating. What's more, they cannot do so. Drug companies' priority is to deliver returns to shareholders. One way of doing this is to influence government, which could not anyway gather, collate and exploit the data necessary to optimise the general health of the population.

Outcome-based policy, and Social Policy Bonds in particular, could be the answer. Improving rich countries' health is complicated and long term in nature. Existing policy isn't working very well. Broad metrics for physical health are fairly well established and robust. A gradual transition in the rich countries to a Social Policy Bond regime would reward efficient existing approaches and channel our limited funding into the most promising new ones. For more, see my essay on Health Bonds.

No comments: