Gun Control: No Room For Compromise

When it comes to guns, the United States is exceptional. We have the highest civilian gun ownership rate in the world, with 89 guns per 100 people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. 

The U.S. gun lobby sometimes cites Switzerland as an example of a country that has many privately owned guns and little violent crime. (Their  argument seems to be guns don’t kill people; only lunatic Americans kill people.)

In fact, ammunition kills people. It is true that  Switzerland, like the United States, has a strong gun culture with many shooting clubs — but it also has a mass citizen militia. Members of the part-time militia, in which most men serve, are allowed to keep their weapons at home, and the country of less than 8 million people owns at least 2.3 million weapons, many stashed under beds and in cupboards. But while Swiss homes contain guns, ammunition is largely kept under lock and key at local military depots.

                                       American “Exceptionalism”

 Someone once described Canada as “a country in North America where everyone has health insurance.” The same pundit defined the U.S. as “a country in North America where everyone has a gun.”

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ADHD and the Medication Feeding Frenzy in America

CORRECTION: In the post below, I make mention that there has been no U.S. media coverage on the MTA report. But after some further digging, I found coverage from Investor’s Business Daily, along with popular sources the New York Post, and Fox News and technical/niche publications like Planet Chiropractic. So there is some American coverage.

But if you click around you can see that the American stories are much more brief than their international counterparts. Each of the stories in the mainstream outlets is more of a newswire dispatch than an actual article, where as the international stories are comprehensive. And while pretty much all of the news sources of record in the U.K. covered the story, the major U.S. outlets–like the WSJ, NYT, Time, Newsweek, etc–seem to have had nothing.

Given that the U.S. is 90 percent of the ADHD drug market, you’d think that MTA’s findings would make nation-wide headlines. But instead coverage is scattered and superficial. Stories are relegated to quasi-interest group literature (investors who may lose money on the drugs, chiropractors who have a professional interest in questioning medication), or to the News Corporation (which owns both the Post and Fox news)–a multinational company with a strong Australian and British component. There’s still no convincing evidence that the American media is, on the whole, ready to meaningfully cover MTA’s findings.

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Earlier this week the British press broke some startling news: the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD (MTA), has issued a report that claims there are no long-term benefits of ADHD medication for hyperactive children. Report co-author Professor William Pelham of the University of Buffalo, is quoted in the British press as concluding that ADHD medication is, in the long-term, all risk and no reward.

“The children [on ADHD medication] had a substantial decrease in their rate of growth so they weren’t growing as much as other kids both in terms of their height and in terms of their weight,” he says. “And…there were no beneficial effects – none.”

This is an about face from MTA’s benchmark report in 1999 that asserted with certainty that ADHD drugs were the best way to address ADHD in children. The 1999 study claimed that “combination treatments” (i.e. drugs and behavioral training) along with “medication-management alone” (i.e. drugs) are “both significantly superior” to other ADHD treatments that don’t include medication.

But, according to Pelham, “we exaggerated the beneficial impact of medication in the first study. We had thought that children medicated longer would have better outcomes. That didn’t happen to be the case.” So, according to Pelham, here’s the bottom line: “in the short run [medication] will help the child behave better, in the long run it won’t.”

To some, Pelham’s report might be unwelcome news. Thanks in part to the medical credibility that MTA and other studies have conferred on ADHD medications, global sales of ADHD drugs are predicted to be $4.3 billion by 2012. This ADHD boom is a recent phenomenon, largely a product of the 1990s. According to the US National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, the number of children who received a diagnosis of ADHD increased 250 percent from 1990 to 1998. A study from 1996 showed that from 1990-1995 child use of ADHD medication increased by a factor of 2.5 and drug production increased six-fold. The production of Ritalin (the most common ADHD medication) increased by 700 percent from 1990-1999.

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Desperate, Drug Makers Court Doctors in Developing Countries

In the U.S. we are accustomed to seeing exceptionally well-dressed drug company reps strolling into doctors’ offices bearing trinkets: coffee cups, note pads and pens. We also know that they take doctors to expensive dinners, and host “continuing education” junkets to warm climes. Device-makers have been known to ferry doctors to strip clubs after dinner.

But in the developing world, drug makers are pulling out all of the stops. Often there is not even a pretense that the gift will help the doctor do his job. In Kashmiri, a physician confides, “representatives of pharmaceutical  companies offer cash, refrigerators, color televisions, laptops, PCs, mobile phones, ovens, phone bills, [and even to pay school] tuition [for your] children.”

In India, a doctor from Mumbai reports:  “On sale of 1,000 samples of the drug, you get a Motorola handset. On sale of 5,000 samples you get an air cooler. On sale of 10,000 samples get a motor bike.”

In Pakistan, a survey of 149 doctors, 100 medical information officers (sales representatives) and 99 medical store personnel, found that gifts may include included air conditioners, cars, cash, home appliances and domestic cattle.   Murad M. Khan, professor & chairman of the department of psychiatry at Aga Khan University, describes the latest practice: For writing 200 prescriptions of a company’s high-priced drug, a doctor is rewarded with the down payment on a brand new car.

These are just a few of the enticements documented in a November 2007 Consumers International (CI ) study, "Drugs, Doctors and Dinners: How Drug Companies Influence Health in the Developing World." (Thanks to Gary Schwitzer, at Schwitzer Health News Blog, for calling attention to this report.) A global voice for consumers, CI is an independent not-for-profit boasting over 220 member organizations in 115 countries.

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Why Aren’t More Students Applying To Medical School?

Did you know that there are only two applicants for every place in U.S. medical schools?

In Canada, surprisingly, close to four students apply for each opening. The training in the two countries is very similar; indeed, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) accredits medical schools in both countries.  And, in the U.S., at the high-end, physicians  can hope to earn far more than Canadian doctors.

Why then do so few Americans apply to medical school?

The answer is that we have priced a medical education well beyond the reach of most middle-class students.  In 2004, tuition and fees at a public medical school averaged $16,153. Students who attended a private school paid $32,588 according to a 2005 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. 

The author, Dr. Gail Morrison, Vice Dean for Education at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tacks on $20,000 to $25,000 a year for living expenses, books and equipment to calculate that the total cost of four years of medical education comes to a heady $140,000 for public schools and $225,000 for private schools.  I’d add that, in many American cities, students would be hard-pressed to cover rent, food, clothing, utilities and transportation for $20,000 a year—let alone books and equipment.

This helps explain why 60 percent of all medical students come from the wealthiest one-fifth of all U.S. families. Another 20 percent come from families lucky enough to be on the fourth step of a five step ladder.

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Universal Coverage –Why Massachusetts is the Last Place to Begin the Experiment

At the Massachusetts Medical Society’s 8th Annual Leadership Forum last Wednesday, Dr. Steven Schroeder, former head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
and Distinguished Professor of Health and Health Care at the University
of California, San Francisco, told a provocative story about a poll
that asked patients in the U.S. `Canada,  Australia, New Zealand and
the U.K the following question:

“If your personal doctor told you that you had an incurable and fatal
disease, would you accept that diagnosis or seek a second opinion?

  • In the U.S.           91 percent of patients said they would seek a second opinion.
  • In Canada            80 percent                    “        “       “       “     “     “           “ 
  • In Australia          71 percent                  “        “   
  • In New Zealand     51 percent
  • In the U.K.           28 percent 

“You have to love the British,” Schroeder commented. “You can just hear
an Englishman saying ‘Well, Luv, it’s been a good life, hasn’t it? Now
let’s make a pot of tea and discuss the funeral arrangements.”

At the other end of the spectrum, we find the Americans who, Schroeder
noted, “are the only people in the world who expect to live ‘in
perpetuity’.”

Today, I would like to suggest that our expectations as patients help
to explain why we spend roughly twice as much per person on health care
as most developed countries—even when, overall, it’s not clear that our
healthcare is better. In fact, in some areas outcomes are worse.

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We Can’t Fund SCHIP, But We Can Save Merck

Today, Bloomberg trumpeted the good news:  “Merck Profit Gains on Cancer Vaccine, Diabetes Pill.”

“Merck & Co., the third-largest U.S. drugmaker, reported a 63 percent gain in earnings,” Bloomberg reported, a victory made doubly by the fact that Merck has seen some rough times. “Competition from generics and the withdrawal of the pain pill Vioxx in 2004 over heart risks have pulled net income down 39 percent since 2001,” the story explained. Indeed, Vioxx gave Merck a black eye, and it’s still battling lawsuits in the courts. But Gardasil, Merck’s new vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, is turning out to be just the blockbuster the company needed. “Gardasil, introduced a year ago [already] has sales of $418 million”

Those of you familiar with my views on Gardasil may want to skip the below section, as it is pulled from an August post. I promise I won’t do this often, but this is an important subject and it’s example of how, if drug manufacturers and their lobbyists work quickly enough, they can sell their story to politicians and to the public before skeptics in the scientific community have a chance to weigh in. Remember the drug industry saying: “It’s important to sell a new drug while it’s still effective” (i.e. before people know too much about it).

On August 27, I wrote:

Earlier this month the FDA announced that the direct-to-consumer ads Merck has been using peddle its new cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, are “half-true . . .information currently being advertised could mislead the public.” 

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Why We Don‘t Have Enough Nurses (It’s Not Low Wages)

Consider this: In the San Francisco area, a nurse with a bachelor’s degree can hope to start out with a salary of $104,000. The salary for a nursing professor with a Ph.D. at University of California San Francisco starts at about $60,000.

This goes a long way toward explaining why nursing schools turned away 42,000 qualified applications in 2006-2007—even as U.S. hospitals scramble to find nurses. We don’t have enough teachers in nursing schools and the fact that the average nursing professor is nearly 59 while the average assistant professor is about 52 suggests that, as they retire, the shortage could turn into a crisis. The most recent issue of JAMA (October 10, 1007) reports that in 2005 we had 218,800 fewer nurses than we needed and by 2020, it’s estimated that we’ll be short some 1 million nurses.

Hospitals have had to raise nursing salaries (as well they should), not just because nurses are scarce but because, in our chaotic hospital system, the work can be extraordinarily stressful.   

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Comment on Class and Health

(To see the original post on Class and health, click here.  To add your comment, scroll down and click on “Contact” on the left-hand side of the page.)

From Alan Abrams (a.k.a. Alan_A
at the hpscleansing.com/group
community forums)

I just read Maggie
Mahar’s health blog after linking to it from an agonist.org blog on universal health care.
I then read Maggie Mahar’s blog [post] on
"Class and Health."  thus this quote:

"And yet, and yet . . . Schroeder sees reason for "cautious
optimism." Although we trail behind other countries, we are healthier than
we once were. We have reduced smoking ratse, homicide rates and motor-vehicle
accidents. Vaccines and cardiovascular drugs have improved medical care. But
progress in other areas will require "political action,"
Schroeder declares, "starting with relentless measurement of and focus on actual
health status and the actions that could improve it. Inaction
means acceptance of America’s poor
health status."

Healthier than we once were? Really?  Are…smoking, homicide rates, and
motor-vehicle accidents adequate measures of the overall improving general
health of Americans?

What about these:

  • 58 Million Overweight; 40 Million Obese; 3 Million morbidly Obese
  • Eight out of 10 over 25′s Overweight
  • 78% of American’s not meeting basic activity level recommendations
  • 25% completely Sedentary
  • 76% increase in Type II diabetes in adults 30-40 yrs old since 1990

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Comment on Class and Health

(To see the original post on Class and health, click here.  To add your comment, scroll down and click on “Contact” on the left-hand side of the page.)

Maggie,

A couple of thoughts on this.

First, Americans who work in physically demanding and/or dangerous jobs such as coal mining, steel manufacturing, auto manufacturing, etc. do not live as long, on average, as the population overall despite comparatively good wages and benefits.  I don’t think countries like Iceland and Switzerland have nearly as many people relative to their populations working in these jobs as the U.S. does.  Japanese people in the U.S. also live longer than most people.  I suspect that it’s due to a combination of diet and genetics. However, as they are here longer and adopt a more westernized lifestyle and diet, they probably don’t live as long as Japanese people in Japan with comparable socioeconomic status do.

Second, regarding social inequality, I think our system, does, to a large extent, reflect our more entrepreneurial culture.  While reasonable people can differ about how much taxes should be raised on higher income people to both reduce inequality and raise money for worthwhile public priorities, I think it is important to remember that there could also be economic costs. In Western Europe and Canada, the total tax burden on middle and upper income people generally exceeds 50% of gross income.  It’s expensive to sustain a welfare state with a generous social safety net.  I think, at the end of the day, those countries, which embraced socialism decades ago, are trading less inequality and more economic security for less economic growth and less opportunity, especially for its younger people. 

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Class and Health

When compared to other developed countries, the U.S. ranks near the bottom on most standard measures of health. Many people assume that this is because the U.S. is more ethnically heterogeneous than the nations at the top of the rankings, such as Japan, Switzerland, and Iceland. But while it is true that within the U.S. there are enormous disparities by race and ethnic group, even when comparisons are limited to white Americans our performance is “dismal” observes Dr. Steven Schroeder in a lecture  published in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday.

Why? It’s not the lack of universal access to healthcare" says Schroeder, though that’s important. And it’s not just that we don’t exercise enough and eat too much—though that is a major cause. But there is one factor undermining the nation’s health that we just don’t like to talk about in polite society: Class. When it comes to health, class matters.

Schroeder, who is the Distinguished Professor of Health and Health Care at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) underlines how poorly even white Americans stack up when compared to the citizens of other countries by pointing to maternal mortality as one measure of health. When you look at “all races” you find that in the U.S. 9.9 out of 100,000 women die during childbirth.  Focus solely on white women, and the number is still high—7.2 deaths out of 100,000 –especially when compared to Switzerland where only 1.4 women out of 100,000 die while giving birth.

Statistics on infant mortality reveal the same pattern: among “all races” 6.8 American children who were born alive die during infancy; limit the analysis to “whites only” and 5.7 infants die—compared to just 2.7 out of 1,000 in Iceland. .) When researchers compare maternal mortality and infant mortality in white America to rates of death in the 29 other OECD countries, white America ranks close to the bottom third in both categories.

Turn to life expectancy, and you find that white women in the U.S. can expect to live 80.5 years, only slightly longer than American women of all races (who average 80.1 years). Both groups lag far behind Japanese women (who, on average, clock 85.3 years). The gap between “all American men” (who live an average of 74.8  years) and white men in the U.S. (75.3 years) is wider—but not as wide as the gap between white men in the U.S. and men in Iceland (who live an average of 79.7 years).

“How can this be?” asks Schroeder. After all, as everyone knows, the U.S. spends far more on health care than any other nation in the world.

The answer is a stunner: the path “to better health does not generally depend on better health care,” says Schroeder. “Health is influenced by factors in five domains — genetics, social circumstances, environmental exposures, behavioral patterns, and health care. When it comes to reducing early deaths, medical care has a relatively minor role. Even if the entire U.S. population had access to excellent medical care — which it does not — only a small fraction of premature  deaths could be prevented. [my emphasis]

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