• Be a journalist

    Via Megan McArdle:



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  • AcademyHealth: Out-of-pocket costs aren’t your only cost of health care

    Out-of-pocket costs for a physician visit can be high, but there’s another personal cost that’s even higher. It’s rarely discussed. Do you know what it is? Read my new AcademyHealth post to find out.


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  • JAMA Forum: We cannot all have it all–The economic limits of pharmaceutical innovation

    My latest JAMA Forum post is out. Here’s an excerpt:

    A $1 million pill that extended life by 10 years would be considered cost-effective, but to provide it to every American would require an expenditure that is equivalent to more than 1000 years of US drug spending. It would be both painful and difficult to deny such a pill to patients who could not afford it. But alternative methods of rationing are perhaps even less palatable. Such are the financial, political, and cultural limits of our ability to manage spending for expensive, effective medicine.

    In fact, we may have already have reached the point of confronting the fact that we cannot all have it all. New, expensive drugs for hepatitis C—Viekera Pak, Sovaldi, and Harvoni—severely stress budget-constrained programs like Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration. Even at the steep discounts those programs receive, these treatments—though cost-effective—are indicated for such large populations that their aggregate cost would overwhelm budgeted resources. The day that life-extending $1 million “miracle” pill arrives (or the precision-medicine equivalent of a collection of drugs), we may look back on the current hepatitis C treatment funding problems nostalgically. As innovation continues, drug pricing and budgeting problems will only get worse.

    Go read the rest.


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  • Some sicker patients not as well served by Medicare Advantage

    The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2016, The New York Times Company).

    New evidence suggests Medicare Advantage may not serve some sicker Medicare beneficiaries as well as it does healthier ones.

    Medicare Advantage’s private health insurance plans offer at least the same benefits as the public, traditional Medicare program for older Americans, as well as some who are disabled or have certain diseases. The private plans may also offer additional benefits not available from traditional Medicare — like coverage for hearing aids and eyeglasses — and lower patient cost sharing. These features make Medicare Advantage attractive and help explain why the program is surging in popularity.

    But several new studies raise doubt about whether Medicare Advantage plans are as good as traditional Medicare for all beneficiaries. Though some evidence suggests Medicare Advantage plans offer higher quality andgreater efficiency than traditional Medicare, that may not benefit some sicker people — like those needing hospitalization, home health care or nursing home care — or those with certain mental illnesses, like depression.

    One way the plans may disadvantage some sicker beneficiaries is by making care harder to get. Many Medicare Advantage plans try to manage care, sometimes requiring pre-approval or a doctor’s referral for certain services. Some of these care management practices may promote more efficient use of health care resources. A study by Katherine Baicker of Harvard and Jacob Robbins of Brown showed that managed care practice patterns spill over into traditional Medicare, increasing efficiency in that program as well.

    Another study by the economists Mark Duggan of Stanford, Jonathan Gruber of M.I.T. and Boris Vabson of Nuna Health and Wharton found that Medicare Advantage enrollees travel farther to visit hospitals than patients in traditional Medicare do. Perhaps in part for this reason, they found that Medicare Advantage enrollees used fewer hospital services, though they were no worse off for it.

    But to achieve efficiencies, the private Medicare plans can exclude some doctors and hospitals from their networks. A Government Accountability Office report released last year documented weak standards for Medicare Advantage plan networks and lax oversight, raising the possibility that all types of patients do not get equal access to care. Because sicker beneficiaries need more care, restrictions on access hit them hardest.

    Consider, for instance, patients reporting symptoms of depression. Such patients may have difficulty understanding health plan features and more trouble navigating the additional steps in obtaining care that some private plans impose. Steven Martino, a behavioral scientist with RAND, and his colleagues recently studied the experience of such people with Medicare Advantage and compared it with those with traditional Medicare.

    Their analysis, published in the journal Health Services Research, found that though the care they received did not differ, Medicare Advantage enrollees with depressive symptoms reported more difficulty getting needed care and drugs, and rated their experience with the private plans as worse than those in traditional Medicare. In other words, the findings point to worse experiences with private plans, not health care providers.

    Another recent study, by the Brown assistant professor Momotazur Rahman and colleagues, found that patients who have been hospitalized or have used home health or nursing home services — all indicating worse health or greater frailty — were more likely to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare than vice versa.

    Such skewed switching rates suggest Medicare Advantage doesn’t serve certain patients well. Rates for switching out of Medicare Advantage are particularly high for lower-income seniors also enrolled in Medicaid. Such a person who also used home health or nursing home services was three to six times more likely to switch to traditional Medicare than a similar traditional Medicare enrollee was to switch to Medicare Advantage.

    Older studies also found that sicker people tended to prefer traditional Medicare and were more likely to leave Medicare H.M.O.s. And other, more recent studies found that lower-income, less educated and sicker people reported worse experiences in Medicare Advantage than in traditional Medicare.

    Though Medicare Advantage may be a less attractive option for some patients, in some cases that could be because it more effectively limits wasteful or fraudulent care than traditional Medicare. For example, the traditional program has, at times, experienced rampant home health care fraud. It’s also worth noting that even if Medicare Advantage doesn’t serve some sicker patients as well as traditional Medicare on average, experience can vary within groups.

    About seven in 10 beneficiaries opt for traditional Medicare, and that alone suggests that many consumers believe they are better served by it.


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  • Control group

    Via David McKenzie:

    control group


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  • An ancient and proven way to improve memory

    The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2016, The New York Times Company). It also appeared on page A3 of The New York Times print edition. See also the accompanying interactive.

    In January, I devoted every walk from my home to the train to the contemplation of work details, hoping to improve my recall of them. That was my New Year’s resolution, and so far I’ve stuck to it.

    In every one of those walks I was also retracing a memorization technique known to the ancients and shown by modern science to be highly effective.

    The “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” written in the 80s B.C. by an unknown author, is the first known text on the art of memorization. (It’s also the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric.) It teaches the “method of loci,” also known as the “memory palace.” As its names suggest, the approach involves associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (“loci”), like one’s house (“palace”) or along a familiar walking route.

    You can test the method for yourself. If you’re like most people, you would not easily commit to long-term memory a 10-item shopping list. But I bet you could remember it — and for more than a few minutes — if you first visualized it along a walk through your house: The entryway of your house is festooned with toilet paper; your kitchen sink is full of lobsters, dancing; a bathtub-size stick of butter melts on your dining room table; your family is singing karaoke in a swimming pool of hummus in your living room; your hallway is so full of grapes you cannot avoid crushing them with each step; your stairway has a runner of lasagna noodles slippery with tomato sauce; a mooing cow is being milked in your bedroom; stalks of corn grow down from the ceiling in the spare bedroom; a crop of multicolored mushroomsblooms in your shower.

    Take a few moments to burn these images and locations into your mind (adding motion, sounds, smells and tactile sense to your imagined scenes helps). We’ll test your memory with an imaginary trip to the grocery store at the end of this article.

    Joshua Foer wrote a book about how he trained to win the United States Memory Championship. He points out that we’re so good at forming mental maps and recalling images that we hardly notice it. Recall the last party you attended at a home you had not previously visited. Though you probably only walked through the house a few times, you can probably remember most or all of its layout and location of major furniture. Anything else distinctive you saw — like unusual or appealing pieces of art, vivid wall colors — and the faces of people you met are probably also easy to recall. Effortlessly, you retained hundreds or thousands of visual memories and spatial details.

    Research backs this up. After people viewed thousands of images for a few seconds each, studies found that, on average, they could correctly distinguish over 80 percent of them from images they had not seen. This remained true even when the comparison images were of the same object in a slightly different position (like the same cabinet open versus closed or the same telephone at a different angle). Another study found people could usually recall objects they’d seen even after seeing hundreds of intervening ones, demonstrating that visual memories of objects are stored long-term.

    It makes sense, then, that numerous studies, extending back decades, showthat the method of loci improves memory. Using the approach, people who could remember only a handful of numbers — seven is the norm, give or take a few — were trained to recall 80 to 90.

    Another study found that the method doubled the proportion of people who could remember at least 11 of 12 grocery list items. Students who applied it in an undergraduate economics course outperformed those who did not on an exam. Medical students who used the method of loci to study the endocrine system learned more than those who did not.

    Patients who have had treatments known to impair recall and cognitive function — like coronary bypass surgeryand surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer — improved their memories with the method of loci. As a memory aid, it’s superior to rote memorization and converting items to images alone. Placing those images in a memory palace helps recall.

    Before books were common, the method of loci helped lawyers and others retain and recall information necessary for their jobs. The locution “in the first place” is a holdover from this ancient method of memorizing speeches. It works because it harnesses humans’ evolved skill at remembering details of locations, which helped hunter-gatherers recall what was edible and where to find it, and what was poisonous and how to avoid it.

    It does not take an extraordinary mind to develop an extraordinary memory. Competitors in memory championships or those seen on Fox’s “Superhuman” — memory athletes — weren’t born with photographic memories. They have practiced for years using the method of loci, supercharged with other mnemonic methods. With them, some can memorize hundreds of random numbers in a few minutes or the order of cards in a deck in tens of seconds. But, as Mr. Foer learned, memory athletes’ memories excel only in areas they’ve trained — they still misplace their keys like the rest of us.

    Indeed, science shows that these are normal minds after extraordinary training — the same hardware running different software. Brain anatomy of memory athletes and those without exceptional memories are the same. Because they have trained specifically to recall numbers and faces, memory athletes outperform others in doing so. But recall of magnified images of snow crystals — for which memory athletes have not trained — is identical. After observing a game for five or 10 seconds, master chess players can recall the positions of nearly all the pieces. A novice can recall only a few.The difference is training, not exceptional memory. Shown a random configuration of pieces that could not arise in a game, chess masters are no better than novices at piece position recall.

    My commute has become my memory palace, not for groceries, but for aspects of my work. Features of certain landmarks — specific houses and parks I pass — have become loci for them, converted to images and scenes of my own invention. I figuratively walk through my work as I literally walk to it. For example, I associated an analysis of the time patients wait for care with cars waiting at an intersection I cross.

    We think memorizing is laborious, boring work because we’ve been taught to do it by rote. You may recall, as I do, countless hours in third grade poring over multiplication tables or, in ninth grade, endlessly conjugating French (or Spanish) verbs, or in 11th grade, incessantly reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy in the attempt to firmly place them in long-term memory. These brute-force approaches are dull because they’re devoid of any creativity.

    In contrast, the best memorizers place the most flamboyant, bizarre, crude and lewd images and scenes (and their actions) in their memory palaces. The more distinctive, the more easily they’re recalled. This is why thePuritans recoiled from the method of loci — they knew students were relying on “impure” and idolatrous imagery — and it fell out of favor as an educational tool. Today our memories are eroded by external memory devices like cellphone cameras and apps.

    Now, about that grocery list. In your mind, enter and walk back through your house. What do you see? Can you get all 10 items?


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  • Logic bomb

    Via Paul Kelleher:



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  • AcademyHealth: Drug value frameworks

    Several organizations have developed frameworks for assessing the value of prescription drugs. My AcademyHealth post summarizes them.



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  • Upshot extra: Memory

    Sometimes I submit an Upshot post with relief. The effort to produce it was a slog, and I’m glad to have it off my plate.

    Sometimes submission is a letdown. The research and writing process was such a joy, I’m sad it’s over so soon. It was with this sentiment with which I submitted, two months ago, the post that appears today. (It also appears in the NYT print edition.)

    In a couple of days over the winter holidays, I tore through the book at the center of the post — Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. Though I had no particular reason to doubt the effectiveness of the memory techniques he described and used to win the United States Memory Championship, I wanted to test them for myself. (About memorization, see also this post.)

    I did so in short sessions spread over a few days, perhaps totaling about a half hour. My task: to memorize as many digits of pi as possible. I began with the first nine firmly implanted in long-term memory, having learned them growing up: 3.1415926. (This happens to be about the number of digits a typical person can hold in short-term memory.) I guessed in 30 minutes I could, perhaps, double this. Boy was I wrong.

    With very little effort, using the simple method I describe in my Upshot post, I memorized just over 100.

    3.1415926 5358 979 323 84 626 4(33)8 327 950 2(88)4 1971 69 399 375 105 820 9(74)9 44 (59)(23) 078 1640 6(28)6 20 8(99)8 6(28)0 (34)825(34) 211 (70)(67) 98 214

    Clearly something unusual is going on here, and the spacing and parentheses in these digits of pi indicate, in part, what. The first order of business was to “chunk” pi, or break the series of numbers into more manageable, memorable bits. I did this opportunistically. Whenever a short sequence conveyed something meaningful to me, that became a chunk.

    See that “1971” I underlined above? That’s my birth year. I can remember that! So that became a chunk. All the other chunks are demarcated by spaces. I’ll get to how I made some of the others memorable in a moment.

    It’s not enough to remember the chunks. One has to remember them in sequence. So, the next order of business was to associate each chunk, in order, with a place along a familiar route, for which I used my commute to the train. This became my “memory palace” — part of the ancient memorization technique known as the “method of loci” that I describe in the post.

    In my mind’s eye, I saw:

    • the “3” and “5s” and “8” of “5358” aligned with the muntins of my back door;
    • “979” and the “323” in the balusters of my back porch;
    • “84” formed my back gate;
    • “626” reminded me of a car (“Mazda 626”), so hung out at the top of my driveway;
    • the “33” of “4338” became two hula dancers in my driveway (the bracketing “4” and “8” just seem easy to remember);
    • and so forth.

    Every chunk has a story. Eights (in “2(88)4”) became snowmen on neighbor’s lawn. Numbers that sound like prices (“399,” “375” in sequence) became negotiators haggling in the street. A “44” became a mailbox, right where a mailbox actually exists along my walk. I could go on. I did go on.

    It’s completely silly, but it clearly works. Once I proved it to myself, I read into the scientific literature. That’s all in the Upshot post, as is a far more practical use for this method. I do not need to know 100 digits of pi, but it’s very cool to me that I can memorize them — and much more — if I want to. Learning this and writing about it was tremendous fun.

    You can memorize like this too. It’s not hard. Read and learn why.


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  • AJMC: Frontiers in health care

    Last fall, I participated in a series of discussions hosted by the American Journal of Managed Care about health reform and the changing health insurance and delivery landscape. The video below is one exchange from the series, focused on frontiers in health care.

    I was joined by

    • Leah Binder, President and CEO of The Leapfrog Group
    • Margaret O’Kane, President of the National Committee for Quality Assurance
    • Matt Salo, Executive Director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors
    • Dennis Scanlon (moderator), Professor of Health Policy and Administration and Director of the Center for Healthcare and Policy Research, College of Health and Human Development, The Pennsylvania State University

    I’ll post other videos from the discussion series, but if you can’t wait, you’ll find more here.


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