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Musings on Seppuku, Christo and the Likelihood of Hospitals Leading Health Care's Transformation

© John Weeks

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Integrator Blog by John Weeks . View all columns in series
Summary: The American Hospital Association is gathering its members at a Leadership Summit this July, the theme of which is "Hospitals Leading Health Care's Transformation." The claim in the title struck me as quite unlikely. Two images came to mind: one of mass seppuku, the other of the artist Christo with his sights on a sprawling metropolitan hospital building much as he once focused his conceptual art on the German Reichstag. Here are some musings on the probabilities of hospitals leading health care transformation, and some intimations about where we might begin to find a leading coalition.



Two images came to mind on reading that the theme of the 2010 Leadership Summit of the American Hospital Association (AHA) is "Hospitals Leading Health Care's Transformation."

The first image was of mass suicide.

Image
Convening hospital leaders around ideas of transformation
More specifically, I imagined a ritual of mass seppuku - harakiri - among the conferees. The Samurai practice of disembowelment follows some cause of shame. We know via the Institute of Medicine of hundreds of thousands of errors and unnecessary deaths each year from hospital care. From researchers like Dartmouth's Jack Wennberg, MD we know that scores of procedures and surgeries are grossly over-performed. Leaders like Obama's nominee to head Medicare Don Berwick, MD teach that health outcomes are often worse when we have more rather than less high tech treatment.

   
I pictured the figurative belly
of the inpatient system cut open
and resources flowing out
 into communities.

 
Adding salt to such wounds are the analyses of comparative outcomes between various Western nations that find that all the rest have a higher investment in out-patient care and also have better health outcomes.

The proud Samurai simply drags a knife blade from one side of his gut to the other. Hospitals leading health care's transformation? I pictured the figurative belly of the inpatient system cut open by the collective hands of these leaders, and resources flowing out into communities.

This image was entirely uninformed by the contents of the AHA brochure. I was merely reacting to the title's disconnection from certain evidence.

First, there are the known, shameful features of US medicine noted above. Then there is the general rule that the form of capitalism in our medical-industrial complex focuses public and private investment on the high cost and lucrative (to those selling services, not to those paying for them) inpatient environment run by these leaders.  AHA's target audience makes their margins and multipliers off disease. They sit at the power-center of our singularly expensive and ineffective complex.

Might that be cause for shame?

Image
Keynoter Gore: Will he offer inconvenient truths?
The second general life rule that shaped my bias is that when a person or a class of people has a dollar in a fist, it is typically a challenge to pry it loose. If by "dollar" one is referring to the inpatient revenue and procedure fees that consume much of the $2.5-trillion spent each year in the US on medicine as we know it, well, prying such wealth loose would likely take a blade of some sort.

The third bit of life evidence is the reasonable assumption that if our focus is dominated by inpatient care and treating disease, we will not likely spend much energy discovering ways to engage the determinant s of health to lead us in "health care's transformation." 

The image of mass seppuku arrived on reading the AHA theme alone, without examining the words in the brochure. Perhaps an analysis of the content would teach me differently.  

On reading, I learned that these hospital leaders will be spending some of their revenues at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, San Diego, where they meet.  Once present, they will be surrounded by a political-intellectual royalty: Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, author and historian Ken Burns, plus leading lights from the hospital universe.


   
Instead of plastic, Christo
wraps the hospital in a
wet paper bag.
Made of Benjamins.

 
I am sure the talks will be stimulating, especially if Mr. Gore engages attendees with the inconvenient truth that, when it comes to health creation, medicine is a fly on the elephant back of determinants like race, poverty, education, food, stress, opportunity and one's sense of self-worth. In the case of over-performed procedures and surgeries, medicine itself is a deterrent.

Image
Christo's Reichstag: Would he wrap a hospital in Benjamins?
Perhaps the man from whom the presidency was robbed will underscore that the transformation in health care and medical investment we need is to move our human and financial energy out of the high-tech hospitals and into the high-touch of community-based, out-patient integrative environments that focus on primary prevention, wellness, health-promotion and social support.

I searched the conference flier for awareness of the need to correct this imbalance. Wellness, as a concept, is absent, as are prevention and health promotion. Primary care exists only as part of integration strategies with hospital systems. Community health is not to be found. Integrative medicine and integrative practices merit the same visibility in this transformational scheme as do public health and the concept of determinants of health: nada.

The second image began to form. I thought of the artist Christo, famous for wrapping the Reichstag, the German parliament building, in plastic.

Only in the image that came to me, instead of parliament, Christo is utilizing one of the castles called hospitals that peak the hills of municipalities all across the country. And instead of plastic, Christo wraps the hospital in a wet paper bag. Made of Benjamins.

There are certainly thoughtful leaders of hospitals. But we'll need a coalition of another sort to lead health care's transformation.


Send your comments to johnweeks@theintegratorblog.com
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About The Author
Resumes are useful in employment decisions. I provide this background so that you may understand what informs the work which you may employ in your own. I have been involved as an organizer-writer in the emerging fields of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine since 1983. Happily, I have learned some things. I was once called an "expert in alternative medicine" by......more
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