Bioethics for Breakfast: Health Care Deserts: What is Happening in Rural America?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Dr. Steve Barnett and Dr. Kelly Hirko presented at the October 8th Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Health Care Deserts: What is Happening in Rural America?”

While past Bioethics for Breakfast events were held in person, this year’s series is taking place virtually. The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

The session focused on the challenges faced by rural health care. Rural populations tend to be older with more chronic health conditions, poorer, and uninsured or underinsured. Before the pandemic, rural hospitals were already stretched thin. A record 18 hospitals closed in 2019. Since then, another 14 have closed in the first half of 2020. Experts say that more would have closed if it weren’t for grants and loan money approved by Congress through the Cares Act. But now many hospitals have already gone through that relief money and are unsure how they will pay back federal loans, even as they are bracing for a possible increase in coronavirus cases over the winter. Of the 1,300 small critical care hospitals across the United States, 859 took advantage of Medicare loans.

What policy options are available for meeting these challenges? We want health care delivered efficiently, but we also want equitable access to needed health care. To what extent is equitable access threatened by hospital closures and difficulty recruiting young physicians?

Dr. Steve Barnett offered a hospital perspective, pointing out that many perceptions about rural America don’t necessarily reflect the truth. The majority of rural hospitals are designated as critical access hospitals. Physicians have been attracted to rural environments at a much lower rate than urban environments – this is a long-standing global problem. Dr. Barnett shared that physicians in rural America have misconceptions about the type of support they will receive from peers, about compensation, quality of care, and practice coverage. On a practical level, they also want to know where the nearest shopping mall is. On the subject of medical education, Dr. Barnett put forth two questions: How can we expose all medical students to rural communities? How can we admit students to medical school who have an interest in returning to their rural community? Regarding workforce shortages Dr. Barnett shared that the value of advanced practice nurses, nurse practitioners, and certified registered nurse anesthetists is being recognized.

Dr. Kelly Hirko then provided a patient perspective and offered potential policy considerations. Social determinants of health and health behaviors (like tobacco use) impact the rural patient population. The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly hastened telehealth across the world. Using telehealth can be a tool to overcome access barriers and improve quality of rural health care. Dr. Hirko stressed the importance of broadband internet availability: limited availability in rural regions limits the uptake of telehealth. Dr. Hirko shared that more than one-third of rural Americans lack internet access in the home, with lower use of smartphones, computers, and tablets compared to urban populations. For these reasons, telehealth could contribute to unequal access to healthcare. Policy considerations she shared were to ensure availability and viability of rural healthcare facilities, and to maintain the healthcare workforce. Finally, Dr. Hirko discussed the need for efforts to improve rural health on a population level by increasing access to basic preventive services in order to address the root causes of poor outcomes in rural settings.

During the discussion portion, attendees offered questions related to telehealth barriers. While internet service may be available in a particular location, the cost of the service can still be a barrier to access. Wearable tech devices such as the Apple Watch, as well as other peripherals, have helped providers to get creative about measurements such as heart rate and blood pressure during telehealth visits.

Related Resources

About the Speakers

Steve Barnett, DHA, CRNA, FACHE
Dr. Steve Barnett has served as a hospital chief operating officer and chief executive officer over the past 20 years. Currently Steve is serving as the President & CEO of McKenzie Health System. McKenzie Health System is a rural critical access hospital in Sandusky, Michigan and one of the founding members of the National Rural Accountable Care Organization. Steve has been a member of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association since 2001, served and chaired their Legislative Policy Panel and sits on the Small & Rural Hospital Council. Steve earned a Doctorate in Healthcare Administration from Central Michigan University.

Kelly Hirko, PhD, MPH
Dr. Kelly Hirko is an Epidemiologist, and community-based researcher at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Traverse City campus. Her research focuses on cancer disparities and the role of lifestyle factors and social determinants in cancer prevention and control. She is particularly interested in using implementation science approaches to effectively incorporate evidence-based interventions into underserved rural settings. Dr. Hirko earned her PhD in Epidemiologic Sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health before joining MSU in 2016.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Listen: Why I Left the U.S. for My Surgical Procedure

No Easy Answers in Bioethics logoNo Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 21

What would you do if you needed surgery, but seeking care would mean $25,000 or more in medical debt? Would you consider traveling to another country to receive the same surgery at a fraction of that cost? Would you put off seeking care entirely, until it became an emergency situation?

These questions related to access to care, health insurance, and medical tourism are explored in this episode, which features Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences faculty members Len Fleck and Larissa Fluegel. Dr. Fluegel, a clinician born and raised in the Dominican Republic, shares her personal experience of needing gallbladder surgery, and the reasons why she traveled from Michigan to the Dominican Republic to receive that surgery. It may not be surprising that the main reason was cost. Discussing the healthcare systems in both countries, Drs. Fleck and Fluegel explore the challenges that under- and uninsured individuals in the U.S. face when seeking care.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Each month Center for Ethics faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Can Pharmaceutical Cost Control Be Achieved Ethically with Surgical Precision?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyPaula Cunningham and Craig Hunter presented at the February 6th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Health Reform: Can Pharmaceutical Cost Control Be Achieved Ethically with Surgical Precision?”

This year’s Bioethics for Breakfast series is focused on a central theme: “Is There a Cure for Our Sick Health Care System?” The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

There is virtually unanimous agreement among health policy analysts that something must be done to control health care costs, especially pharmaceutical costs, which are often a major burden for the elderly. Consumers and taxpayers are also demanding that health care costs be controlled and reduced, most often with regard to drugs. This is why the recent focus has been on the price of drugs. However, any practical proposal to reduce drug health care costs has been denounced as rationing and/or as a threat to medical innovation. The result has been political inertia and economic exuberance (for for-profit health care corporations), with $3.8 trillion in U.S. health spending in 2019 and projections of $6.0 trillion total health spending for 2027. What forms of drug-related health care cost control are you willing to accept for yourself and those you care about? What do you see as the ethical challenges that must be addressed by any effort to control such health care costs, especially for the elderly?

Speaker Paula Cunningham, State Director of AARP Michigan, highlighted the struggles that people in Michigan face regarding the price of prescription drugs, noting that some individuals travel to Canada because the cost there is drastically lower. Cunningham shared the AARP “Stop Rx Greed” campaign as an example of their advocacy work in this area. She also noted that there are several pieces of legislation being worked on in Michigan and at the national level, such as an importation bill, that would reduce prescription drug costs. She finally stressed that this issue is not just about data and facts, it is about people’s lives.

Speaker Craig Hunter, Director of Specialty Program Outcomes and Analytics for CVS Health, brought industry expertise to the discussion and provided an economic perspective on the issue. He shared three main points, the first being that we need to rethink the question “can medical outcomes be achieved ethically with surgical precision?” because economic structures in the U.S. are not set up in a way that drives synergy. Hunter then discussed the need for structural changes to encourage creative solutions. When asking those in attendance if they believed that drugs in the U.S. are a public good, a minority responded in agreement. Hunter pointed out that this question has been answered very differently in other countries. Finally, Hunter noted that, regardless of “right or wrong,” the market is responding to its own stimulus; the business has been incentivised for certain outcomes.

Attendee questions and comments came from a variety of perspectives, including physicians, legislative staff, and community leaders. There was discussion of direct-to-consumer advertising, drug patents, and the barriers that exist for the consumer within this complex system.

About the Speakers

Paula Cunningham
Paula Cunningham, MLIR, is State Director of AARP Michigan, which has more than 1.4 million members. She is former President of Lansing Community College, and in the business community was CEO of Capitol National Bank. She serves on numerous boards, including, but not limited to, Davenport University and McLaren Health Systems-Lansing. Paula is in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and was the first African American woman in the country to be president of a majority owned bank.

Craig Hunter
Craig Hunter is the Director of Specialty Program Outcomes and Analytics for CVS Health, providing leadership and oversight for outcomes-based financial reconciliations negotiated across specialty drug and patient management products. Previously Craig worked at Eli Lilly, first as the Lead Outcomes Scientist for the U.S. Alzheimer’s and Oncology franchises, and later leading U.S. Outcomes Customer Engagement. Additional previous experience includes time consulting as well as Primary Investigator for a USAID-funded project examining the intersection of traditional and western medicine in South Africa. Craig earned his MPP from the University of Chicago and a BA in Communications (Rhetoric)/Political Science from Furman University.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Our Sick Health Care System: What’s the Differential Diagnosis?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyLaura Appel and Marti Lolli presented at the December 5th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Our Sick Health Care System: What’s the Differential Diagnosis?”

This year’s Bioethics for Breakfast series centers on the theme “Is There a Cure for Our Sick Health Care System?” The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

Our health care system is exhibiting multiple symptoms of serious illness. Treating symptoms is rarely a good idea. What we need is a differential diagnosis. What are the root causes for skyrocketing costs, increasing access barriers, physician burnout, patient non-adherence and dis-satisfaction, failed therapies, and so on? Too many greedy profit-takers? Too many stingy insurers? Too much administrative bureaucracy? Too much competition? Too little competition? Too much unhealthy behavior by patients? Too little time for patients? Too much technology? Large empathy deficits? Too little prevention? Too many medical specialists? Too few primary care physicians? Not enough evidence-based medicine? Too much waste and inefficiency? Too many hospital mergers? Too fragmented a financing system? Patients demanding too much care? Unregulated drug prices? Too many special interests shaping health care policy?

Addressing these questions, Priority Health’s Marti Lolli first emphasized that these challenges are complex and cannot be simplified. She posited that there is enough money in the system—collectively we must get creative. In “diagnosing” our health care system, she put forward three items: 1) radically overhaul the fee-for-service system, 2) move away from the “one size fits all” health care model, and 3) accept data, technology, and transparency.

Michigan Health & Hospital Association’s Laura Appel then shared her perspective. Her three-item “diagnosis” began with the first point that there is a focus on health care when the underlying problem is health. One example she gave was that kidney disease in Michigan cost Medicaid $1 billion, stating, “We cannot change the output if we don’t change the input.” Her second item was that we don’t really have a “system,” also discussing the need for more behavioral health resources. Her third item focused on evidence, and that overall, to have a “system,” the system needs to respond to the evidence, recognizing what needs to change.

 
Attendee questions and comments addressed a variety of topics, including caregiver education, advance care planning, evidence-based medicine in practice, and social and structural determinants of health. Finally, one overarching point that those in attendance seemed to agree on: change is hard.

Marti Lolli Laura Appel and Leonard Fleck speaking to audience
Image description: pictured left to right are Marti Lolli, Laura Appel, and Leonard Fleck during the question and answers portion of Bioethics for Breakfast on December 5. Image source: Liz McDaniel/Center for Ethics.

About the Speakers

Laura Appel
Laura Appel is senior vice president and chief innovation officer at the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. She focuses on healthcare policy, hospital finance, legislation and governance. At the federal level, she represents the interests of Michigan hospitals and health systems in both the legislative and regulatory arenas on key issues, including federal healthcare reform and Medicare. She is an expert in auto insurance and legislative policy and has a proven ability to influence legislation and healthcare policy through her understanding of the issues, educating influencers and policymakers, and introducing fresh ideas.

Marti Lolli, MBA
Marti Lolli is chief marketing officer and senior vice president of consumer and government markets at Priority Health, a nationally recognized health plan. She oversees the individual market, Medicare advantage and Medicaid markets, and market intelligence. She also oversees all marketing, digital strategy, communications and customer experience at Priority Health. Her areas of expertise include consumerism in health care, market trends in health care, competitive and consumer analytics, health care reform, health care innovation and strategic planning.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Listen: Ethics and Policy Issues of Targeted Cancer Therapies

No Easy Answers in Bioethics logoNo Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 16

What kinds of challenges currently exist within precision medicine? This episode focuses specifically on targeted cancer therapies, featuring a discussion between Center Professor and Acting Director Dr. Len Fleck and College of Osteopathic Medicine student Stephanie Mackenzie. Dr. Fleck discusses ethics, economic, medical, and health policy issues related to these high-cost therapies. Additionally, he provides insight into how U.S. pricing models for these therapies compare with other countries.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Each month Center for Ethics faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Health Care and Social Justice: Just Take Two Aspirin for Your Tumor If You Cannot Afford Your Cancer Care

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard Fleck, PhD

Dr. Stanley Goldfarb is the former Associate Dean of Curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns,” he complained that curricula in medical schools “are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness.” He goes on to say, “A new wave of educational specialists is increasingly influencing medical education. They emphasize ‘social justice’ that is related to health care only tangentially.” Really? Only tangentially?

Readers will recall Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. She had discovered elevated lead levels in many of her pediatric patients. She could have “stayed in her lane,” provided chelation therapy, hoped for the best, and gone home for dinner. If this is what we would have taught her during her medical education, we would have been complicit in suborning a major injustice.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha did the necessary background research, discovered that public officials had switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to save money, which, in turn, resulted in lead being leached into the drinking water. She brought her case to the media and vigorously advocated (successfully) for correcting this health hazard. She did this for the sake of the children in Flint, many not yet born. This was not tangential to her role as a physician; this was integral and essential. This was a matter of social justice. This was part of her medical education in the College of Human Medicine.

44680640861_952d805c95_c
Image description: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is seated at a table smiling. Image source: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability/Flickr

The practice of medicine today is suffused with social justice challenges. As we explain to our first-year medical students, the clinic is not an island of “pure caring,” isolated from the injustices that are pervasive in our health care system and governing policies. Those injustices frequently seep into clinical practice through the hands of physicians who, no doubt, see themselves as just and caring practitioners. This may sound like hyperbole, but I ask you to consider the evidence.

For the past forty years the dominant demand in health policy has been for health care cost containment. I will remind the reader that last year in the United States we spent $3.65 trillion on health care, roughly 18% of our GDP, compared to 11% of GDP in most European nations. If we ask who is responsible for spending more than 70% of those dollars, the short answer is that physicians in the clinic are the responsible agents. Physicians decide whether a patient needs surgery, which drugs to prescribe, what diagnostic tests are necessary, how much home care is needed, and so on. Consequently, if a focal point is needed for controlling health care costs, it will be physicians.

Note that cost control can be a matter of justice or injustice. In either case, physicians will have to be mindful of the justice-relevant consequences of their diagnostic or therapeutic choices. In the 1990s a number of managed care plans used “at risk” reimbursement to elicit more cost-conscious physician clinical behavior. In some cases, as much as 30% of a physician’s income could be “at risk” if they ordered too many tests. They could also earn 30% bonuses if they were especially stingy in their use of tests. Patients knew nothing of these arrangements. Income risks and opportunities such as those could readily shape physician behavior in ways that were less than just. Whether physician judgment in these circumstances would be corrupted would depend upon whether in their medical education they had had the opportunity to reflect upon such future challenges (as opposed to thoughtlessly accepting such practices as “this is the way medicine is practiced today.”)

Putting physician income at risk to control costs related to patient care is crude and obvious. More problematic are the subtle and invisible ways in which physicians control costs justly or unjustly. For example, a patient demands an MRI to rule out brain cancer when a physician is medically certain these are tension headaches. But the physician authorizes the MRI because “insurance will pay.”

If thousands of physicians are indifferent to authorizing such unnecessary care, then the costs of health insurance to employers increase. For employers at the economic margins, that cost increase may mean dropping health insurance as a benefit, thereby adding those employees to the ranks of the uninsured. From the perspective of any individual physician, this is a very remote, invisible consequence of their decisions that creates an injustice. Medical students need to know this to practice medicine justly.

Other employers will change insurance coverage to reduce their costs. They will require their employees to accept insurance with $5000 front-end deductibles. Financially less well-off workers will deny themselves that unnecessary MRI (no injustice there), but they will also deny themselves medically necessary diagnostic procedures (sometimes with deadly consequences) by not even walking into a physician’s office. Why, physicians might ask, should they as physicians be responsible for those bad decisions by patients; there was nothing to diagnose in the examining room. But maybe there was something to diagnose in society? This is sounding a bit more like the situation in Flint. Non-physicians made cost control decisions but counted on physicians to see such decisions as “merely tangential” to the practice of medicine, nothing that should concern them.

Precision medicine has generated more than 90 FDA approved genetically-targeted cancer drugs with annual costs of more than $100,000. These drugs are used with patients with metastatic disease. The vast majority of these patients will gain no more than extra months of life from these drugs, not extra years (though clever media campaigns create a very different impression). For most workers, their health plan will require a 20-30% co-pay for these drugs, which is unaffordable for most workers. Financially well-off managers and executives will be able to afford those co-pays, which means that workers who could not afford the co-pays will have contributed through their premiums to subsidizing that other 70-80% for the well-off. Is that fair? Is that just?

Should physicians caring for these patients silently acquiesce to these insurance arrangements as “too tangential” to medical practice, too far removed from the clinic? Should we, as teachers of future physicians, also silently acquiesce so that more curricular time can be allocated to understanding the mechanisms of action of the next 90 FDA approved targeted cancer therapies? WWHAD: What Would Dr. Hanna-Attisha Do?

Leonard Fleck photoLeonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Acting Director and Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 24, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Fleck: Medicare For All: This Is Going to HurtGreed Is God: The Divine Right to Avaricious Drug PricingGene Editing: God’s Will or God’s Won’t

Click through to view references

Bioethics for Breakfast: Medicare for All: What Should That Mean?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyStacey Hettiger and Rick Murdock presented at the September 26th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Medicare for All: What Should That Mean?”

“Medicare for All” has become a contentious political slogan. Advocates for various versions of the slogan want to see everyone have access to needed and affordable health care. Critics see all versions of the slogan as unaffordable and hostile to individual liberty. Is compromise possible? Can we have some level of affordable health care for everyone in our society? Can this be accomplished in ways that are congruent with our most fundamental political values? Event speakers addressed these questions and more, inviting response and discussion from those in attendance.

This year’s Bioethics for Breakfast series centers on the theme “Is There a Cure for Our Sick Health Care System?”

About the Speakers

Stacey Hettiger
Stacey Hettiger is Director of Medical and Regulatory Policy at Michigan State Medical Society. Her responsibilities include developing materials, programming, and member communications in the areas of legal and regulatory compliance and State and Federal quality initiatives. This includes advocacy and outreach on issues affecting the delivery of health care such as HIPAA, physician payment models and incentives, and practice transformation. Prior to joining MSMS, Stacey worked for twenty years in the Michigan State Legislature.

Rick Murdock
Rick Murdock retired from the Michigan Association of Health Plans in 2017 after 12 years as executive director, and has since been consulting with the MAHP Foundation to coordinate the Michigan ACE (adverse childhood experiences) Initiative. Prior to joining MAHP, he spent three years working in the Michigan legislature, followed by 18 years in the State Budget Office (mental health and Medicaid and health planning). Additionally he spent 6 years in Medicaid administering the Medicaid managed care program. He has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Dr. Fleck presents on elder ethics at International Bioethics Retreat in Paris

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck recently presented at the 2019 International Bioethics Retreat, held in Paris, France on June 26-28. Dr. Fleck chaired a session titled “In the Clinic” which featured topics on clinical ethics and medical decision-making.

In a session titled “Elder Ethics,” Dr. Fleck presented a talk on “Whither Frailty: Ethical, Economic, Medical and Policy Challenges.” Dr. Fleck addressed four key questions: (1) How should frailty be defined as a medical phenomenon? (2) What should be the scope and limits of respect for autonomy in the case of the frail elderly? (3) What should be the scope and limits of acceptable risk of harm to the frail elderly in the case of aggressive medical or surgical interventions? This question pertains to the responsibilities of physicians and surgeons in proposing such interventions. (4) What issues of health care justice deserve the attention of policymakers when it comes to meeting the health care needs of the frail elderly?

The first problem refers to the complexity of frailty as a medical phenomenon. Frailty is not disability; frailty is primarily associated with the elderly. Some researchers describe frailty as “accelerated aging.” Roughly 38% of individuals over age 90 would be described as being frail. Individuals may be frail and not have any life-threatening medical problems. Most of the frail elderly are able to make medical decisions for themselves, which is why there is the ethical issue of respect for patient autonomy versus justified medical paternalism. Among the behavioral traits of the frail elderly would be reduced activity (prolonged bed rest), very slow mobility, weight loss, extreme old age, diminished handgrip strength, polypharmacy, and social isolation. Clearly, frailty exists along a complex spectrum requiring considerable acuity of judgment to avoid ethical missteps.

To illustrate the potential for ethical missteps, labeling an elderly individual as “frail” can result in inappropriate paternalistic decisions, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. Alternatively, failure to identify an elderly individual as frail can result in overly aggressive medical treatment (and a range of avoidable medical harms) as well as a lack of attention (and resources) that might better address the social needs of the frail elderly that would represent a greater net benefit than aggressive medical treatment.

We might wish to go to the research literature for some guidance. However, there is little actual research regarding the frail elderly and aggressive medical or surgical care. Further, it is difficult to imagine how such research could be accomplished in a way that was not ethically problematic. This makes the responsibilities of physicians in clinical practice who care for the frail elderly all the more challenging.

Dr. Fleck concluded with two points: (1) From the perspective of health care justice, from the perspective of what a just and caring society ought to do, resources should be redirected from aggressive medical care for the frail elderly to their social service needs. However, the fragmented system for financing health care in the U.S. gets in the way of easily making this re-allocation of resources. (2) Soft paternalism will often be ethically justified in caring for the frail elderly considering aggressive medical care. A non-committal stance on the part of physicians in these circumstances, under the ethical guise of respect for patient autonomy, will most often be neither just, nor caring, nor respectful of patient needs and their considered values.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Fitness, Frailty, and the Challenges of Successful Aging

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyFrancis Komara, DO, and Scott Wamsley presented at the April 25th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Fitness, Frailty, and the Challenges of Successful Aging.”

In very concrete terms, what should “healthy aging” mean when we wish to be a just and caring society? We start from these facts: (1) the size of the elderly and hyper-elderly population in Michigan and nationwide is growing rapidly; (2) costly health needs are much more common among the elderly than among the non-elderly; (3) if we are completely responsive to the health needs of the elderly, will we unfairly shortchange the health needs of the non-elderly?; (4) there are great disparities among the health needs of the elderly themselves (so what do we need to do to correct that initial state of affairs?); (5) are family caregivers excessively burdened by things as they are—what can we do socially that is affordable to relieve those burdens?

How does “aging in place” work, given the five challenges listed above, especially for those elderly who are in near poverty conditions? This Bioethics for Breakfast explored these and other questions.

Francis Komara, DO
Dr. Francis Komara is a Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine (FCM) and Director of the Geriatric Fellowship Program in the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Komara is a geriatrician who formerly practiced at the FCM clinic at MSU, and was formerly medical director of the Medical Care Facility and Rehabilitation Services of Ingham County, and medical director of McLaren Visiting Nurse & Hospice. Dr. Komara received his medical degree from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Scott Wamsley
Scott Wamsley is Deputy Director of the Aging & Adult Services Agency in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Mr. Wamsley has more than twenty years of experience in the field of aging services. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Eastern Michigan University.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the Childbearing Year

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyEvery woman who dies during or after pregnancy has a story to tell, a story that can teach us how to prevent other maternal deaths.

Renée Canady, PhD, MPA, and Cheryl Larry-Osman, RN, MS, CNM, presented at the February 21st Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Just Caring for All Michigan Mothers: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the Childbearing Year.” Drawing from the 2018 Michigan Maternal Mortality Surveillance report, the speakers reminded the audience that “every woman who dies during or after pregnancy has a story to tell, a story that can teach us how to prevent other maternal deaths.” The presenters introduced the session with compelling personal experiences, illustrating the scope and scale of the problem. Using an ethics yardstick Dr. Canady then invited the 33-member audience to respond to graphic depictions of the U.S. maternal mortality death rate – the highest rate within the developed world. Those numbers give evidence of a profound social injustice and a need to modify resource allocation accordingly.

Yet as in much of the U.S., evidence suggests that Michigan has not met the mark. As the speakers noted, race matters – a lot. From 2011-2015 Black women in Michigan were found to be three times more likely than white women to die of a pregnancy-related cause; upon review nearly half (44%) were considered preventable. Black mothers in Michigan were twice as likely to die from a pregnancy-associated cause; upon review, 39% were deemed preventable. Social and medical advances have disproportionately failed to address pregnancy needs for Black mothers. Sociodemographic variables do not fully explain the observed gap – the disparities are rooted in multilevel (system, practitioner, patient) inequalities including place, communication, and discrimination. A health equity approach recognizes that one must comprehensively address institutional racism, class oppression, and exploitative gender discrimination.

As a just and caring society we have an obligation to ensure safe and healthy pregnancy and birth experiences for all mothers. Ms. Larry-Osman noted that a virtue ethics approach leans on the character of health professionals to engage compassion, reason and discipline in the interest of maternal well-being. In concert, a communitarian ethics approach emphasizes shared values, ideals and goals to identify barriers to care as well as interventions and solutions. As reported by attendee Lynette Biery, Maternal Child Health Director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, maternal mortality reviews such as the Michigan Maternal Mortality Surveillance Program provide data necessary to address changes that would improve women’s health before, during and after pregnancy. Michigan has seen some improvement after the 2016 implementation of hemorrhage and hypertension “safety bundles” and the MI-AIM (Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health) is now working on opioid bundles as well. But given the scale of the problem, are such efforts enough?

Approximately 50% of Michigan women rely on Medicaid for prenatal care and give birth in a Medicaid supported hospital, but that program is targeted for cuts under the current federal administration. What is the state/physician obligation to address this? Should the state ensure the availability of labor support “doulas” as part of standard maternity care as is being done in other states? Mortality reviews help, but are they sufficient to raise awareness and address the multilevel problems? What structural strategies might best pave the way for continuity of care and community care? How can solutions avoid racist calls for “personal responsibility for heath”? What are the effects of pervasive racism and how might the state best address them? Many in audience lingered past the session’s end to continue discussing these questions. Our thanks to health law firm Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman for generously supporting these important conversations.

Renée Canady
Renée Canady, PhD, MPA, is Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Public Health Institute. She is a nationally recognized thought leader in health disparities and inequities, cultural competence, and social justice. She additionally is Assistant Professor in MSU’s Division of Public Health within the College of Human Medicine. In her scholarly work, she emphasizes the social context of mental and physical health, and the pregnancy experiences of African-American women.

Cheryl Larry-Osman
Cheryl Larry-Osman, RN, MS, CNM, is a Perinatal Clinical Nurse Specialist at Henry Ford Hospital (Detroit). She additionally is trained as a Healthcare Equity Ambassador for the hospital and serves as a cultural competency and healthcare equity expert within that system. She has over 18 years of experience in obstetrics and is a passionate advocate for the optimal and equitable care of women and children.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.