Category: Medicine

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

The Political Economy of Lobotomies in the United States

The actual title starts with: “Gordon Tullock Meets Phineas Gage:”, and here is the abstract:

In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a “lobotomy boom” where the use of the lobotomy expanded exponentially. We engage in a comparative institutional analysis, following the framework developed by Tullock (2005), to explain why the lobotomy gained popularity and widespread use despite widespread scientific consensus it was ineffective. We argue that government provision and funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy. We support this claim by noting the lobotomy had virtually disappeared from private mental hospitals and asylums before the boom and was less used beforehand. This paper provides a more robust explanation for the lobotomy boom in the US and expands on the literate examining the relationship between state funding and scientific inquiry.

That is from Raymond March and Vincent Geloso, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

China possible fact of the day

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Here is the full story.  Here is further background.

A Time to Fast

Over one hundred years ago researchers demonstrated that calorie restriction in rats increased lifespan, sometimes by as much as 50%. Since that time, the finding has been replicated and extended to primates. A few humans have taken up the diet but for most of us easy access to delicious food trumps willpower. A new paper in Science reviews the literature on calorie restriction and also offers some evidence that less restrictive regimes such as intermittent fasting may have similar effects.

First on calorie restriction. As noted, we have data on mice and primates showing increased lifespan and we also have data on humans showing the same physiological improvements as seen in other species:

In humans, short-term trials such as the multicenter CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy) study (2629), the observational studies of centenarians residing in Okinawa who have been exposed to CR for most of their lives (30), and observations of the members of the Calorie Restriction Society (CRONies) who self-impose CR (31) have shown the occurrence of many of the same physiological, metabolic, and molecular benefits typically associated with long-lived animals on CR. These studies support the observation that long-term CR preserves a more youthful functionality by improving several markers of health, including decreases in body weight, metabolic rate, and oxidative damage (14); lower incidence of cardiovascular disease (31) and cancer; and decreased activity of the insulin-Akt-FOXO signaling pathway (32, 33).

Although these findings clearly indicate that a reduction of caloric intake could be an effective intervention to improve health and prevent disease during aging in humans, there are several obstacles [including safety concerns and lack of data in older popualtions] and…The current “obesogenic” social environment makes it difficult for individuals to adhere to strict dietary regimens and lifestyle modifications for long periods of time. Thus, there is interest in alternative feeding regimens that may recapitulate at least some of the beneficial effects of CR by controlling feeding-fasting patterns with little or no reduction in caloric intake.

So what else works? Three regimes have shown promise. 1) Time Restricted Feeding (TRF), i.e. limiting eating time to a 4-12 period during the day and preferably earlier in the day, 2) Intermittent Fasting (IF)–say a 24-hour period of 1/4 calorie consumption once or twice a week and 3) a Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD) in which calories are restricted to 30% of normal with a higher proportion coming from fat and doing this for five days periodically, i.e. once a month to once very couple of months. The diagram presents the main results and evidence.

 

How is Obamacare doing?

Yes, it is more popular, but how is it doing?:

Obamacare has continued to devastate the individual health insurance market:

  • In March of 2016, there were 20.2 million people covered in the individual health insurance market according to a hard count of state insurance department filings done by Mark Farrah and Associates.
  • In March of 2017 that count was down to 17.7 million.
  • In March of 2018 the count was 15.7 million–a 22% drop in two years.

This means 4.5 million people lost their individual health insurance in just two years.

Hardest hit are the 40% of middle class individual market consumers who are not eligible for a subsidy.

  • In March of 2016 there were 7,520,939 people covered in the off-exchange individual health insurance market where subsidies are not available.

  • In March of 2017 5,361,451 were covered.

  • In March of 2018 4,004,522 were covered–a 47% drop in two years.

And, the Obamacare subsidies paid to consumers are hardly sustainable.

According to the CBO, the average Medicaid outlay for a non-disabled adult is $4,230–a program that virtually has no premiums and co-pays. But because the risk pool is so bad and therefore expensive in the Obamacare exchanges, the average subsidy cost for taxpayers is $6,300–and that doesn’t include what the consumer pays in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for Obamacare coverage.

Why has the Obamacare individual market melted-down in these last two years? Because its premiums and deductibles are sky high–for all but the lowest income participants.

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cheapest 2019 Obamacare individual market Silver plan for a family of four (mom and dad age-40) making a subsidy eligible $65,000 a year costs $4,514. That plan has a $6,500 deductible meaning the family would have to spend $11,014 on eligible health care costs before collecting other than nominal first dollar benefits.

That same family, but making too much for a subsidy, as 40% of families do, and a typical family in the affluent Virginia 10th, would have to spend $19,484 in premiums plus a $6,500 deductible, for a total of $25,984 in eligible costs before they would collect any meaningful benefits.

That is from Robert Laszewski, with additional interesting points at the link.  Do see my earlier post on what does and does not make sense in Obamacare — the risk pool for the individual market simply isn’t big or robust enough.

Depression and religion in adolescence

Depression is the leading cause of illness and disability in adolescence. Many studies show a correlation between religiosity and mental health, yet the question remains whether the relationship is causal. We exploit within-school variation in adolescents’ peers to deal with selection into religiosity. We find robust effects of religiosity on depression that are stronger for the most depressed. These effects are not driven by the school social context; depression spreads among close friends rather than through broader peer groups that affect religiosity. Exploration of mechanisms suggests that religiosity buffers against stressors in ways that school activities and friendships do not.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, Sriya Iyer, and Anwen Zhang, forthcoming in the JPE.  I find this to be one of the most underemphasized benefits of religion, perhaps because religious people themselves do not wish to come off as overly neurotic.  And the effect seems to be large:

…a one standard deviation increase in religiosity decreases the probability of being depressed by 11 percent.  By comparison, increasing mother’s education from no high school degree to a high school degree or more only decreases the probability of being depressed by about 5 percent.

And for the most depressed individuals, religiosity seems to be more effective than cognitive-based therapy “one of the most recommended forms of treatment.”

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

Maybe We Won’t All Die in a Pandemic

The high frequency of modern travel has led to concerns about a devastating pandemic since a lethal pathogen strain could spread worldwide quickly. Many historical pandemics have arisen following pathogen evolution to a more virulent form. However, some pathogen strains invoke immune responses that provide partial cross-immunity against infection with related strains. Here, we consider a mathematical model of successive outbreaks of two strains: a low virulence strain outbreak followed by a high virulence strain outbreak. Under these circumstances, we investigate the impacts of varying travel rates and cross-immunity on the probability that a major epidemic of the high virulence strain occurs, and the size of that outbreak. Frequent travel between subpopulations can lead to widespread immunity to the high virulence strain, driven by exposure to the low virulence strain. As a result, major epidemics of the high virulence strain are less likely, and can potentially be smaller, with more connected subpopulations. Cross-immunity may be a factor contributing to the absence of a global pandemic as severe as the 1918 influenza pandemic in the century since.

From a new paper in bioRxiv, the biological preprint service analagous to arXiv.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Kenyan hospital markets in everything

The Kenyatta National Hospital is east Africa’s biggest medical institution, home to more than a dozen donor-funded projects with international partners — a “Center of Excellence,” says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The hospital’s website proudly proclaims its motto — “We Listen … We Care” — along with photos of smiling doctors, a vaccination campaign and staffers holding aloft a gold trophy at an awards ceremony.

But there are no pictures of Robert Wanyonyi, shot and paralyzed in a robbery more than a year ago. Kenyatta will not allow him to leave the hospital because he cannot pay his bill of nearly 4 million Kenyan shillings ($39,570). He is trapped in his fourth-floor bed, unable to go to India, where he believes doctors might help him…

The hospitals often illegally detain patients long after they should be medically discharged, using armed guards, locked doors and even chains to hold those who have not settled their accounts. Mothers and babies are sometimes separated. Even death does not guarantee release: Kenyan hospitals and morgues are holding hundreds of bodies until families can pay their loved ones’ bills, government officials say.

Dozens of doctors, nurses, health experts, patients and administrators told The Associated Press of imprisonments in hospitals in at least 30 other countries, including Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China and Thailand, Lithuania and Bulgaria, and others in Latin America and the Middle East.

Here is the full story by Maria Cheng, via Daniel Lippman.

Interview with Chad Syverson

Interesting and substantive throughout, here is one bit:

Syverson: In general, we think companies that do a better job of meeting the needs of their consumers at a low price are going to gain market share, and those that don’t, shrink and eventually go out of business. The null hypothesis seems to be that health care is so hopelessly messed up that there is virtually no responsiveness of demand to quality, however you would like to measure it. The claim is that people don’t observe quality very well — and even if they do, they might not trade off quality and price like we think people do with consumer products, because there is often a third-party payer, so people don’t care about price. Also, there is a lot of government intervention in the health care market, and governments can have priorities that aren’t necessarily about moving market activity in an efficient direction.

Amitabh Chandra, Amy Finkelstein, Adam Sacarny, and I looked at whether demand responds to performance differences using Medicare dataOffsite. We looked at a number of different ailments, including heart attacks, congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and hip and knee replacements. In every case, you see two patterns. One is that hospitals that are better at treating those ailments treat more patients with those ailments. Now, the causation can go either way with that. However, we also see that being good at treating an ailment today makes the hospital big tomorrow.

Second, responsiveness to quality is larger in instances where patients have more scope for choice. When you’re admitted through the emergency department, there’s still a positive correlation between performance and demand, but it’s even stronger when you’re not admitted through the emergency department — in other words, when you had a greater ability to choose. Half of the people on Medicare in our data do not go to the hospital nearest to where they live when they are having a heart attack. They go to one farther away, and systematically the one they go to is better at treating heart attacks than the one nearer to their house.

What we don’t know is the mechanism that drives that response. We don’t know whether the patients choose a hospital because they have previously heard something from their doctor, or the ambulance drivers are making the choice, or the patient’s family tells the ambulance driv­ers where to go. Probably all of those things are important.

It’s heartening that the market seems to be respon­sive to performance differences. But, in addition, these performance differences are coordinated with produc­tivity — not just outcomes but outcomes per unit input. The reallocation of demand across hospitals is making them more efficient overall. It turns out that’s kind of by chance. Patients don’t go to hospitals that get the same survival rate with fewer inputs. They’re not going for productivity per se; they’re going for performance. But performance is correlated with productivity.

All of this is not to say that the health care market is fine and we have nothing to worry about. It just says that the mechanisms here aren’t fundamentally different than they are in other markets that we think “work better.”

Here is the full interview, via Patrick Collison.

The new CEA report on socialism is better than critics are claiming

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

More to the point, by far the longest section in the report covers a specific health-care bill, introduced in both the Senate and House and supported by 141 members of Congress, that has become a centerpiece of debate in the Democratic Party. It is hardly irrelevant.

The legislation would eliminate cost sharing, prevent private insurance plans from competing, and prevent private markets from supplementing government coverage (outside of, say, cosmetic surgery). The House version would even prohibit health-care providers from earning profits. These provisions are far more extreme than what is found in most Western European health-care systems. The analogies with traditional socialism are indeed apt — the bill is much worse than anything the Trump administration has proposed to date.

Many of the criticisms of the report have been directed at the section on health-care economics. The critics tend to proclaim their own moderate views and favorably compare some of the Western European health-care systems to that of the U.S. The goal is apparently to smash the report for associating those well-functioning health-care systems with Lenin and Mao. Yet I haven’t seen any of the report’s critics acknowledge the extreme nature of the current Democratic proposal, or that it might need rebuttal, and that such a rebuttal is inevitably going to sound somewhat over the top.

And:

The report also commits the now-unpardonable and immediately punished sin of supporting a doctrine of “false equivalence” — namely, that these days many Democratic ideas are as unacceptable as those associated with Trump.

There are further points at the link, controversial throughout.  Here is the report itself.

The Big Push Failed

In 2004, Jeff Sachs and co-authors revived an old theory to explain Africa’s failure to develop, the poverty trap, and an old solution, the big push.

Our explanation is that tropical Africa, even the well-governed parts, is stuck in a poverty trap, too poor to achieve robust, high levels of economic growth and, in many places, simply too poor to grow at all. More policy or governance reform, by itself, will not be sufficient to over-come this trap. Specifically, Africa’s extreme poverty leads to low national saving rates, which in turn lead to low or negative economic growth rates. Low domestic saving is not offset by large inflows of private foreign capital, for example foreign direct investment, because Africa’s poor infrastructure and weak human capital discourage such inflows. With very low domestic saving and low rates of market-based foreign capital inflows, there is little in Africa’s current dynamics that promotes an escape from poverty. Something new is needed.

We argue that what is needed is a “big push” in public investments to produce a rapid “step” increase in Africa’s underlying productivity, both rural and urban.

Note also the mosquito bed nets being used for other purposes, AT.

As the title of the blog might suggest, I was skeptical. But even if a big push wasn’t exactly the right idea, I’m all in favor of Big Ideas and Sachs pursued his Big Idea with tremendous skill and media savvy. Pilot programs were soon up and running and then quickly expanded into full programs. In June 2010, the Millennium Villages Project released its first public evaluation and that is when things started to fall apart.

The initial MVP evaluation claimed great success but simply compared some development indicators before and after in the treated villages without comparing to trends elsewhere. In 2010 such a study was completely out of step with contemporary practices in impact evaluation. Red flag! Clemens and Demombynes showed that comparing to trends elsewhere significantly moderated the impact. A second MVP paper was published in the Lancet but then was quickly retracted when Bump, Clemens, Demombynes and Haddad demonstrated that it had  significant errors. Clemens and Demombynes wrote a summary piece on the controversy then in an astounding and under-reported scandal the MVP tried to stifle Clemens and Demombynes. The MVP, with Jeff Sachs at the head, also sicced their lawyers on Nina Munk and her book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. More red flags.

Yet, despite all of this controversy and bad behavior, the MVP project continued to move ahead and in 2012, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) funded US $11 million into an MVP in Northern Ghana that ran until December 2016. Under the auspices of the DFID, we now finally have the first in-depth, independent evaluation of one MVP project and it doesn’t look great. The project did some good but the big push failed and the good that was done could have been done at lower cost.

Overall, the MVP in northern Ghana did not achieve the overall MDG target to reduce extreme poverty and hunger at the local level. Where there are attributable changes to the MDG targets, these tended to be the more limited changes than those that will fundamentally improve people’s health, educational and other outcomes. For instance, the project did increase attendance at primary school (Goal 2) but did not go beyond this MDG and improve the learning outcomes of children; the project did increase the proportion of births attended by professionals and women said to be using contraceptive methods (MDG indicators), but it is not possible to assess the effect on maternal health (Goal 5); and the project did increase the number of toilets (a target under Goal 7), but not beyond this MDG in terms of hygiene and sanitation practices. There are, however, exceptions. The project had a remarkable impact on stunting, which is a long-term health indicator and a predictor of socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood.

So the MVP had some good effects on some indicators:

But is this impact sufficient given the size of the investment? And, by doing everything together, is there a synergistic effect that offers greater value for money than would arise through implementing individual sector-based interventions? In our cost-effectiveness analysis, we demonstrate that the project has so far not yielded sufficiently positive results, and what has been achieved could have been attained at a substantially lower cost (even when we take account of investments made for future usage). As such, the project seems to have fallen short of producing a synergistic effect; and the impact is not large enough for the project to be regarded as cost-effective, even when each sector is assessed independently of the others. Of course, in the longer run, the MVP may produce welfare gains. Importantly the investments in improving the health care service may enhance health outcomes later on; or other considerable investments in infrastructure (roads, health and school facilities) may have an impact on future outcomes. 

Perhaps then, the most concerning findings are the early indications that the MVP approach will be difficult to be sustained by district institutions and at the community level; and there are signs that any gains made under the project are already being undermined.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman and co-authors, including Jeff Sachs, offer a broadly similar although less negative in tone evaluation of the entire MVP project.

Marijuana in Canada

Dispensaries selling various strains of marijuana and high-potency extracts, called budder and shatter, have opened on main streets. Regular pop-up markets like the one in Hamilton have sprouted, to the point vendors can attend five a week in the Toronto area.

Cannabis lounges have expanded, offering not just a place to smoke and take hits, but classes on growing cannabis at home and making cannabis creams. Cannabis-infused catering has gone so mainstream that the national association of food service businesses, Restaurants Canada, is hosting a seminar on it. Cannabis tour companies have opened, as have cannabis “bud-and-breakfasts.”

Universities and colleges across the country have introduced courses on cannabis business, investing, retail and cultivation.

Newspapers, which have hired full-time cannabis reporters, have published cannabis sections, filled with editorial ads by government-licensed producers advertising lines of cannabis-infused beverages, coffee and dog chew toys they are developing for when such products become legal.

…Ms. Roach see cannabis becoming almost like corn in its derivative form, threaded through everyday Canadian consumer products. Although people eat a minimal amount of corn each day, she said, “there’s corn syrup in everything.”

That is from Catherine Porter at the NYT.  I increasingly believe that decriminalization will prove a more stable solution than outright legalization.