Wag the Dog

What if the system to provide heart care has already gotten as big as it should be?

Worse (for hospitals), what if it’s already far larger than it needs to be? Can the system continue to increase revenues if they’ve already attained titanic proportions and outgrown demand? After all, darn it, there are only so many sick people around.

Hospital administrators might have to face an unpleasant choice: downsize to strip excess capacity and suffer the consequences in a competitive market, or . . . fabricate demand for their services.

Like the Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro characters in the movie, Wag the Dog, about how two media-manipulators divert public attention away from a Presidential sex scandal by fabricating a war, spin is everything. It’s enough to sidetrack public attention from a scandal, obscure a truth, send us on a useless detour.

If healthcare for the heart isn’t driven by need, but many still desire to reap the benefits of the procedure-focused system, why not increase the perceived need?

That’s precisely the course that many hospital systems have chosen to follow. If the market you serve has been tapped to its full potential, then grow the market.

Imagine if a company like General Motors were to operate this way. In 2006, for instance, GM sold 9.1 million automobiles. If GM executives were to decide that they’d like to outstrip Toyota by boosting sales by 10% to 10 million, how would they do it? They would first have to determine whether it was feasible to grow demand for their product. If deemed possible, the company would need to ramp up manufacturing capacity to anticipate increased demand. If they miscalculate, GM could be stuck with a costly surplus and have to swallow the costs, maybe selling leftovers at a loss. (We don’t mean to pick specifically on GM; they’re a fine company as far as we’re concerned. This is just a hypothetical illustration.)

But what if a company could concoct some sort of scheme to persuade the car-buying public that they just had to have their cars or trucks? In other words, they could, in effect, create demand for their products.

As perverse as it sounds, that is exactly what occurs in healthcare for heart disease. The system long ago exceeded the necessary level of infrastructure to maintain a high-quality level of care accessible to most Americans. Instead, it continues to grow through a distortion of perception, delivering more services of increasing complexity to larger and larger numbers of people.

The size of the market is therefore a manipulable thing, something that can be massaged and cultivated. There are a variety of clever ways to exaggerate the need for heart procedures.

Why not raise the alarm for heart disease every chance you get? When a local sports figure survived a heart attack here in Milwaukee, St. _____ marketing department was right there, broadcasting the process in TV ads after his recovery. What could be more American than baseball, apple pie . . . and St. _____ Hospital? After his hospital discharge, the 57-year old local icon was shown on the sidelines with his team, back on the job, and at home with family, all beaming, just three months after a bypass operation. “I received only the very best care at St. _____ Hospital. They treated me like family. St. _____ doctors and nurses are the best!” Predictably, a two-month long spike in hospital testing followed filled with people worried whether they, too, might be in imminent danger. Several local cardiologists boasted of the many sports figures who came through the stress testing and heart catheterization labs, though virtually all checked out to be fine.

Though it can serve a legitimate purpose in some situations, stress tests are the ultimate example of a heart scam built on the perception of danger. Pull people in with promises of reassuring them whether or not they have heart disease, only to provide murky results that usually do no such thing. The pitfalls of the test are turned to advantage. The all too common equivocal or mildly abnormal result can be converted into a hospital procedure. (Imagine you could perform such alchemy on the uncertain calculations on your income taxes.)

With millions of stress tests performed every year and the push to perform more and more screening tests, the market has, in effect, been expanded—even though no increase in the disease itself has actually occurred.

Beware: As the scramble for heart patients intensifies, you are going to feel like you are being pulled closer and closer into the jaws of this hungry monster called the American cardiovascular healthcare machine.

Comments (7) -

  • Anna

    4/20/2009 4:24:00 PM |

    "As the scramble for heart patients intensifies, you are going to feel like you are being pulled closer and closer into the jaws of this hungry monster called the American cardiovascular healthcare machine."

    I wish our primary care doc understood this.  When we expressed some reservations about a follow-up CT angiogram (and entering the CVD "machine" prematurely) after my husband's EBT heart scan score of 282 (and the recommendation for a statin Rx STAT without a chance to try diet, lifestyle and supplements), we were reprimanded in no uncertain terms and accused of distrusting Western medicine, and what we wanted to try (TYP) was malpractice if he agreed.  I really thought this PCP was one of the more enlightened PCPs in our system because he was informed on and recommended optimal Vit D levels, bioidentical hormones and compounded Rx, and EBT coronary artery calcium heart scans.

  • Rick

    4/21/2009 5:14:00 AM |

    I take your point here and thank you for putting it so clearly. But I'm not sure that the system has "outgrown demand" in any absolute sense. As people conquer some kinds of illness, they live to grow old and encounter new kinds. Perhaps if switch resources are switched from procedures to preventive and geriatric medicine, hospitals can maintain their size?

  • vin

    4/21/2009 8:53:00 AM |

    Anna, welcome to the real world.

    Nowdays, I just go to the doctor to have one or other test done and then to hear the results and the diagnosis. Then I choose my own path. Of course I say I need time to think things over and I will get back to him when I have decided.

  • Jim Purdy

    4/22/2009 11:25:00 AM |

    Scary stuff. I do things the same way Vin does.

  • Anonymous

    4/22/2009 4:10:00 PM |

    it is so ironic to see Google ads for major procedure-driven local heart centers and hospitals alongside your wonderfully insightful blog!

    If anyone doubts the truth of this most recent Heart Scan Blog entry "Wag the Dog", just take a look at the targeted marketing Google slips in.  In my case it was ads for Houston areas gigantic Memorial-Hermann and Texas Heart Institute, your content may differ.


  • Dr. William Davis

    4/22/2009 8:05:00 PM |

    Hi, Mad--

    You noticed?

    All ad revenues, by the way--the modest amounts--go towards defraying the continuing development costs of the Track Your Plaque website. It does not go into my pocket.

  • Trinkwasser

    4/30/2009 7:59:00 AM |

    It's even worse in Diabetes World. The ADA, Diabetes UK etc. sponsored by manufacturers of high carb foodlike substances and drug manufacturers, tell you to eat lots of carbs and offset their effect with lots of meds, thus providing a ready feed to the cardiovascular disease industry (The ACCORD effect)