David Brooks: The scary and sloppy case for rationing

David Brooks of the New York Times likes to fancy himself as a truth-seeker, bringing social and hard sciences to the masses. But in his Friday column on health care and death, he makes some shocking and inaccurate assertions. Given his coziness with the Obama administration one has to wonder if he is test-driving some Obama administration rationalizations for rationing.

Brooks is enamored of Dudley Clendinen’s “splendid” essay, as he describes, “The Good Short Life.” Brooks thrills to this definition of a life worth living:

Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life’s “most absorbing thrills and challenges.” He concludes: “When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over. It’s time to be gone.”

Well that “dehumanizing, expensive course” allows millions of Americans who would have died in past years to “kiss someone special.” But is someone confined to a wheelchair (no dog walking) or who needs help dressing not living a life of value? Clendinen, and in turn Brooks, begin down a slippery slope as they decide that, really, is it worth it to keep grandpa around for years if he can’t tie his tie?

Brooks then embarks on a flight of misinformation to suggest we’re wasting much of that money. He finds other useful sources:

As Daniel Callahan and Sherwin B. Nuland point out in an essay in The New Republic called “The Quagmire,” our health care spending and innovation are not leading us toward a limitless extension of a good life.

Callahan, a co-founder of the Hastings Center, the bioethics research institution, and Nuland, a retired clinical professor of surgery at Yale, point out that more than a generation after Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971, we remain far from a cure. Despite recent gains, there is no cure on the horizon for heart disease or stroke. A panel at the National Institutes of Health recently concluded that little progress had been made toward finding ways to delay Alzheimer’s disease.

Much of this is flat-out wrong or misleading. We may not have “cured” all cancers (Brooks is misinformed if he thinks “cancer” is one disease). But survival rates for many types of cancer have soared, especially for breast, prostate and lung cancer. Five-year survival rates for the range of cancers went from 50.1 percent to 65.9 percent in 2000. Peter Pitts of the Center in the Public Interest told me in a phone interview that for many cancers ”early detection and aggressive treatment” can now extend life or result in effective “cures,” that is long-term remission.

A recent report from the Center for Disease and Prevention control explained:

As a result of advances in early detection and treatment, cancer has become a curable disease for some and a chronic illness for others; persons living with a history of cancer are now described as cancer survivors rather than cancer victims . From 1971 to 2001, the number of cancer survivors in the United States increased from 3.0 million to 9.8 million. . . . [T]the number of cancer survivors increased from 9.8 million in 2001 to 11.7 million in 2007. Breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers were the most common types of cancer among survivors, accounting for 51% of diagnoses. As of January 1, 2007, an estimated 64.8% of cancer survivors had lived 5 years after their diagnosis of cancer, and 59.5% of survivors were aged 65 years. Because many cancer survivors live long after diagnosis and the U.S. population is aging, the number of persons living with a history of cancer is expected to continue to increase.

In other words, in just six years the number of cancer survivors increased nearly 20 percent. Interestingly, women and seniors have benefited the most. “Women are more likely to be survivors because cancers among women (e.g., breast or cervical cancer) usually occur at a younger age and can be detected early and treated successfully; in addition, women have a longer life expectancy than men. Among men, a substantial number of cancer survivors had prostate cancer, which is diagnosed more commonly among older men. The large proportion of cancer survivors aged 65 years reflects the increase in cancer risk with age and the fact that more persons with diagnoses of cancer are surviving 5 years.” Put differently, millions more Americans are alive because of progress in cancer research and treatment. I don’t know how one would put a price on the value of lives saved, the contributions those survivors continued to make to society and the children they gave birth to and raised.

Brooks likewise bizarrely claims that there is no “cure” for a heart attack. He surely picked the worse example possible. A heart attack used to be a death sentence or a recipe for permanent convalescence. Now with the advent of beta-blockers, new medical technology and surgical innovations survival rates have risen dramatically. (Researchers, for example, found “rates [of in-hospital mortality] decreased among all patients from 1994 to 2006, falling more markedly in women than men. The steepest drop, 52.9%, occurred among women younger than 55. The mortality rate for men in the same age group decreased by 33.3%.)

Alzheimer’s hasn’t been cured, but drugs to slow the rate of deterioration provide building blocks needed for continued progress. For diabetes the results are stunning. (“People diagnosed with diabetes between 1965 and 1980 lived approximately 15 years longer than those diagnosed between 1950 and 1964 (53.4 years vs. 68.8 years).

Brooks, Pitts says, makes a fundamental error by setting up “cures” as the metric for assessing medical progress. “It is well-established that innovation in health care comes in incremental steps,” he explains. With increasingly personalized treatment made possible by genetic research the type and timing of drugs can be designed for optimal results. If we don’t spend money to make progress that might, for example, slow the rate of Alzheimer’s we’re not going to invest millions in one fell swoop to locate the “cure.” Pitts says, “If you don’t reward innovation,” by funding the painstaking process of step-by-step research we will cease making progress toward long term survival rates and cures, a result that is not morally or politically acceptable in this country. He observes, “The average American male’s life expectancy has increased by a decade over the last 50 years, largely to due pharmaceuticals. We innovated our way to that.”

Moreover, Brooks ignores diseases such as AIDS, once a death sentence, that is now, albeit by use of expensive drugs, a manageable, chronic disease. Should we not have spent the money? Pitt, noting the dramatic improvements in drugs to treat mental illness, explains that millions of people in the past were never treated at all. “Now people with depression are functioning beautifully.”

Brooks says, “Most of us will still suffer from chronic diseases for years near the end of life, and then die slowly.” True, but the alternative is more dead people.

Brooks in the end doesn’t have the nerve to reach the logical conclusion of his arguments. He declares, “Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. ” Well, then what is the point of his column? If he can’t stomach these outcomes why shouldn’t we continue to spend substantial sums to improve and elongate life?

Perhaps the point is to rationalize reductions in health-care dollars spent on the elderly, which by gosh is precisely what the Obama administration is trying to pull off with its Independent Advisory Patient Board. Limiting care, conscience free! After all, do all these old people really enjoy living to 90?

By all means we should have the debate over public and private resources. Let’s come up with market solutions that increase competition and reduce cost. Let’s minimize out unnecessary, external costs (e.g. malpractice insurance). And for the record, I am in favor of living wills and allowing those with terminal illnesses to refuse care. But let’s not kid ourselves.

Anyone, for example, who has had an elderly parent, a friend with cancer, or an experience with mental illness knows the difference our health-care system, warts and all, has made in the lives of millions and millions of Americans. Who of us would choose to receive only the medical care available 20 years ago? And, from where I sit, I’m not ready to throw in the towel on my loved ones (or anyone else’s) because they can’t walk the dog.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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