Younger physicians prefer to ‘have a life’

Baby boomer physicians often deride the fact that newly minted doctors want lives that are more balanced. Many older physicians still work Welby-style 70-to-80-hour weeks. White men dominated the profession in the 1970s. Fewer than 8 percent of physicians were women. Women now make up about half of incoming medical school classes. Research shows that they work fewer hours, largely because of family obligations.

Ripley Hollister, Colorado family physician and Physicians Foundation board member, said: “The older ones are being pushed out (of the system). Many are pissed off and leaving. They have a different view of medicine than the new ones. Being a doctor defined who they were. It was their purpose in life. Younger doctors work maybe 40 hours a week. They see it more as employment than a profession. They have a different view about quality of life. They won’t be quite the workforce (in quantity of hours).”

Darrell Kirch, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, believes that new physicians have a more expansive view of medicine and life, and considers that a positive development.

“I see no evidence that indicates that their ethical commitment is any weaker, that they care any less for patients,” he told the Associated Press.

New Hampshire physician and Dartmouth Medical School professor Robert Wortmann wrote: “It’s a bit unfair to consider Generation X physicians to be unprofessional. Times change and so does our profession. Marcus Welby did not have a working wife, a computer, a preauthorization clerk in his office, or a utilization review committee in his hospital. When he started practice, there were only two nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs available, and hypertension was not treated until it became symptomatic. Few hospitals had coronary-care units. Compared with today’s environment, he had so few tools to work with that his most valuable patient care resource was his time.”

In some ways, Welby was the predecessor of a concierge physician. He was available 24/7 and would spend as much time as the patient needed. Welby, of course, did not get a monthly retainer fee. In fact, he was quick to provide uncompensated care.

The spirit of Marcus Welby lives in today’s physicians. However, his business model is swiftly disappearing from the American landscape. Welby’s practice style could not survive financially in today’s medical culture: having to see one patient every 15 minutes to keep the practice open; seeking insurance preauthorization for treatment; and being office-bound.


How would Marcus Welby, M.D., fare today?

A 30-ish public-relations executive representing a large, modern physician practice was shaking her head in puzzlement.

Her physician client liked to talk about how his practice was not “a Marcus Welby shop,” meaning that its approach and technology reflected the best the 21st century had to offer.

As she walked a visitor toward the office-building exit, she confided, “He keeps talking about this Marcus Welby. I think it’s someone he went to business school with.”

Marcus Welby, the iconic primary care physician who treated patients with inexhaustible kindness and compassion, was at or near the top of the television network ratings and a staple of ABC’s lineup from 1969 to 1976. Marcus Welby, M.D., rose to No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings in its second season, viewed regularly in about 1 out of 4 American homes. Stars Robert Young (Welby) and James Brolin, who played partner Steven Kiley, won Emmy Awards in 1971, and Young won a Golden Globe in 1972.

Predictably, most diseases could be cured within the show’s hourlong time slot. If not, Welby would at least ease the patient’s emotional burden. Young received thousands of letters from fans asking for advice on medical or personal problems.

There was some debate at the time about whether Welby’s image was good for U.S. physicians. Welby could not have been a more positive face for American medicine. However, some doctors were concerned that his tireless customer service and patient bedside manner would lead to unrealistic expectations from patients. Some even believed that Welby contributed to the rise in malpractice lawsuits.

Dr. Don McCanne, a senior health policy fellow at Physicians for a National Health Program, wrote a 2011 blog post titled, “How would Marcus Welby, M.D., fare in an ACO?”

The broader question is whether Welby would be able to function effectively under today’s government regulation and insurance bureaucracy. Welby and Kiley had one nurse/receptionist. It is no wonder that they could spend so much time with the patients. The pair comprised the ultimate patient-centered medical home—no need for National Committee for Quality Assurance certification.

During the show’s run in the late 1960s and early 1970s, physician payment from Medicare was based on a system of customary, prevailing and reasonable charges. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, government implemented a series of cost controls. Nearly half of medical bills were paid out of pocket by commercially insured patients, compared with less than 10 percent today.

The appeal of primary care as a career seemed endless at the time. During the show’s final season in 1976, a Department of Health, Education and Welfare advisory committee predicted a surplus of 145,000 primary-care physicians by 2000.

 It did not work out that way. In a 2005 survey of U.S. med school seniors, half considered limits on income and lifestyle as serious obstacles to entering a primary care practice. However, the No. 1 deterrent, respondents said, was the lack of positive role models or mentors. There were no more Marcus Welbys. Instead, about 3 out of 4 physicians between age 50 and 65 said medicine was increasingly unsatisfying, according to a 2004 survey.

Physician recruiter Merritt Hawkins CEO Mark Smith testified before a U.S. House subcommittee in July 2012 on the decline of solo physician practices.

“Virtually no one wants to be Marcus Welby anymore,” Smith said. He said small physician practices face five major barriers: flat or declining reimbursement; increasing regulatory and administrative paperwork; increasing malpractice insurance costs; health information-technology mandates; and the effects of health-delivery reform. A 2011 survey of final-year medical residents found that only 1 percent wanted to work as solo practitioners like Welby. Only 2 percent of Merritt Hawkins job searches involved recruitment of solo practitioners in 2011, down from 17 percent five years previously.

Said Phillip Miller, Merritt Hawkins vice president of communications, of solo practitioners: “No one is looking for one. No one wants to be one.”

In 1973, only 15 percent of physicians voiced regret about their career choice—and Welby certainly embodied that sense of certainty. By 2002, more than half of physicians over 50 years old said they would not choose medicine as a career again.

Welby always seemed suspicious of specialists, so it is questionable how skilled he would have been at care coordination. However, even he moved his practice to a hospital toward the end of the show’s run.


Obamacare may be the last exit before universal health care

Declaring a full-scale revamping of health-care quality and population health while lowering costs is a daunting task. That tension is highlighted by what Yale University professor William Kissick calls “the iron triangle” of health care: quality, cost and access. Each component competes for resources at the expense of the others. Costs can be cut but, if that is done unwisely, quality and access suffer. Access can be broadened, but it inevitably will cost more and may harm quality. Improving quality also likely will cost more and may restrict access.

 Put differently, it is a version of the project management triangle: cheap, good, fast …pick two.

There is a growing sense that, regardless of the implementation of the ACA, the U.S. is running out of time to deal with the pernicious nature of health-care costs. They are approaching 20 percent of the U.S. economy—crowding out other government priorities, diminishing workers’ wages, businesses’ profits and household savings.

There is no shortage of proposed solutions to this mess. Physician Harvey Fineberg, IOM president, compiled an outstanding laundry list in a 2011 lecture at the Massachusetts Medical Society: “single-payer system, an all-payer system, increased competition, reduced fragmentation, a change in physician payments, technology assessment, information technology, increased oversight, decreased regulation, malpractice reform, consumer choice, patient-centered care, systems to ensure patient safety and increase quality, lean design principles of production, systems engineering, managed care, educational reform and a new professionalism.”

Most practitioners and policy wonks have heard each of these ideas proffered at one time or another as silver-bullet answers to health care’s inefficiency or ineffectiveness.

Bruce Vladeck, former administrator under President Clinton for what is now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, wrote about the false hope of managed care in the 1990s. He said the myopia that surrounds a transcendent idea begins when a “modestly successful innovation is hyped as the unique and unitary solution to some complex, persistent problem.”

Urban Institute fellow Dr. Robert Berenson and colleagues, attempting to dampen what they considered unrealistic expectations about the immediate potential of patient-centered medical homes, said, “It would not be the first time a promising policy idea was judged a failure because of premature promotion.”

Yale Professor Emeritus Theodore Marmor and University of North Carolina Professor Jonathan Oberlander are even blunter about these seemingly simple solutions: “The United States has been singularly unsuccessful at controlling health-care spending. During the past four decades, American policymakers and analysts have embraced an ever-changing array of panaceas to control costs, including managed care, consumer-directed health care, and most recently, delivery system reform and value-based purchasing.

“Past panaceas have gone through a cycle of excessive hope followed by disappointment at their failure to rein in medical-care spending… [A]ccountable care organizations, medical homes, and similar ideas in vogue today could repeat this pattern… [T]he United States persistently pursues health policy fads—despite their poor record—and the promotion of panaceas obscures critical debate about controlling health-care costs. Americans spend too much time on the quest for the ‘holy grail’—a reform that will decisively curtail spending while simultaneously improving quality of care—and too little time learning from the experiences of others. Reliable cost control does not, contrary to conventional wisdom, require fundamental delivery system reform or an end to fee-for-service payment. It does require the U.S. to emulate the lessons of other nations that have been more successful at limiting spending through budgeting, system-wide fee schedules, and concentrated purchasing.”

They conclude that “the American quest for cost-control fads hasn’t worked—which helps explain why the U.S. keeps searching for more panaceas.”

Physicians burning out at an alarming rate

Physicians have to fight for every dollar. Plumbers and attorneys do not have to call a third party to verify that they will be paid when they fix leaky faucets or draw up wills. Primary-care physicians’ share of the U.S. health-care dollar is only 7 cents. If payers cut reimbursement for physician services by 25 percent, the average annual rate of medical inflation would only decrease to 5.7 percent from 6.2 percent. However, primary-care doctors control 80 cents of the health-care dollar by sending their patients to hospitals, referring them to specialists and handing out prescriptions.

 This outsize influence extends to patient perceptions. Nurses, pharmacists and physicians annually occupy the top three spots in the annual Gallup survey of how Americans gauge honesty and ethics among professions. Gallup has polled on public trust in professionals since 1976. In its 2012 survey, nurses scored the highest, at 85 percent on “honesty and ethical standards,” followed by pharmacists at 80 percent and physicians at 70 percent.

More than 3 out of 4 Americans say their physicians put patients’ interests ahead of their own, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

About 4 out of 10 Americans say they are confident in the U.S. health-care system, but more than 8 out of 10 say the health care they receive personally is good or excellent. Physicians are seen as heroes who help people when they are sick, not as cogs in an impersonal economic sector.


Cardiologist Rick Snyder, former president of the Dallas County Medical Society, says physicians do not advocate on their own behalf and fail to use their considerable influence.

“By being an advocate you can treat a whole state or country, not just one patient,” Snyder said. “What are the most credible professions? Nurses and doctors. (Republican pollster) Frank Luntz once said, ‘You doctors are God and the law.’ “

Stanford University professors Victor Fuchs and Arnold Milstein agree. They wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “…Physicians are the most influential element in health care. The public’s trust in them makes physicians the only plausible catalyst of policies to accelerate diffusion of cost-effective care. Are U.S. physicians sufficiently visionary, public-minded and well led to respond to this national fiscal and ethical imperative?”

Unfortunately, the annual battle to avoid reimbursement cuts because of Medicare’s sustainable growth rate has absorbed physicians’ attention in the political arena. All other issues pale by comparison.

Only 15 percent of U.S. primary-care physicians believe the nation’s health-care system works well. More than half are frustrated by the difficulty many of their patients face in paying for care.

Burnout is pervasive

According to a large study in 2012, nearly half of U.S. physicians struggle with job burnout. They said they either were emotionally exhausted or felt a high degree of cynicism or “depersonalization” toward their patients.

The researchers used a questionnaire called the Maslach Burnout Inventory, considered the best measure of job burnout. Burnout was especially prevalent among physicians on the front lines of medicine, such as those who staff emergency rooms or family practices.

On average, physicians worked about 10 hours a week more than other professionals—50 hours vs. the standard 40—and more than 1 out of 3 worked more than 60 hours a week. More than 4 out of 10 expressed dissatisfaction with their work-life balance, almost double the rate of non-physicians.

The study’s authors struck this disheartening note: “Unfortunately, little evidence exists about how to address this problem. Policymakers and health-care organizations must address the problem of burnout for the sake of physicians and their patients.”

A separate survey found that 86 percent of physicians are moderately to severely stressed. Respondents said their top four stress factors were the economy, health-care reform, Medicare and Medicaid policies, and patients without the means to pay for their care.

Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession, for distinctive reasons. Non-physicians are more likely to have had a specific traumatic event, such as a personal crisis or death of a loved one. Physicians are more likely to have on-the-job stress or a specific professional problem. They also are less likely to undergo mental-health treatment.

A study of surgeons with work-home conflicts found they were more likely to fall prey to alcohol abuse and depression because of poor work-life balance. The average surgeon works 60 hours a week, spends 16 of those hours in the operating room and is on call two nights a week. About half who reported work-life conflicts showed signs of depression while more than 1 out of 6 of those showed signs of alcohol abuse or dependency.

Physician burnout starts early. Nearly half of medical students become burned out during their training. Students are overworked, fearful of making mistakes and encouraged to tamp down emotions such as grief and self-doubt.

It is troubling that the nation’s health is in the hands of a profession that displays such pervasive signs of disaffection, disenfranchisement and hopelessness.

Even young physicians exhibit a high degree of pessimism. An April 2012  Physicians Foundation survey of physicians under 40 found that more than half were pessimistic about the future of the U.S. health-care system, while 22 percent were optimistic.

Those physicians who are satisfied with their profession tend to display an evangelist’s zeal for practicing medicine, and enjoy addressing conditions such as obesity and nicotine or alcohol dependence. Their empathy also translates into better patient outcomes. Academic Medicine researchers used a Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE), designed in 2001 to measure empathy in a medical setting. They found a direct association between a positive physician JSE score and better control of patients’ hemoglobin A1c and cholesterol levels.

Pure and simple, physician satisfaction translates into better patient health.


A survey of hospital executives and practice managers by physician recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins underscores the sharp contrast in the outlook of health-care executives compared with that of physicians. Merritt Hawkins surveyed U.S. physicians for the Physicians Foundation in 2012.

  • More than 9 out of 10 executives say they feel positive about being in health-care management, compared with 1 out of 3 physicians who say they feel positive about being in medicine.
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 executives say their morale is positive and they would recommend health-care management as a career, compared with about 4 out of 10 physicians who would make such a recommendation.

Travis Singleton, a Merritt Hawkins’ senior vice president, said in a statement, “For health-care facility managers, the glass appears to be half full. For physicians, it appears to be half empty.”


According to a survey by locum tenens staffing firm Staff Care, virtually all nurse practitioners said they had positive feelings about being an N.P., and 98 percent said they were optimistic about the future of their profession. In the Physicians Foundation survey, only 13 percent of physicians felt optimistic about the future of medicine.

Marcus Welby took joy in his work.  But he also did not face the obstacles and pressures today’s physicians must endure.



The folly of optimism bias

What cripples Americans’ health as much as anything is a misguided tendency known as optimism bias. People tend to believe they are invincible. They expect misfortune to befall others rather than themselves. It is a judgment error, not to be mistaken for an optimistic outlook on life.

Rutgers psychology professor Neil Weinstein stumbled across this when he discovered that his students had unrealistic expectations about their performance on tests. He studied the bias extensively and found it exists in many facets of life, but especially in health.

Most people believe their skills are “above average,” a statistical impossibility like Garrison Keillor’s assertion about the children in mythical Lake Wobegon. They overestimate how swiftly they will accomplish tasks and usually reach optimistic conclusions based on little or no evidence.

A good example of optimism bias was found in a survey of about 1 million high school seniors in the 1970s. About 70 percent believed they had above-average leadership skills, compared with 2 percent who said they were below average. About 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent in ability to get along with others, and 25 percent said they were in the top 1 percent.

Health research is full of optimism bias. Patients guide themselves with half-baked medical theories and misinformation, often with dire consequences for their health and longevity. People tend to predict the future based on experience: If there were no consequences to behavior before, there will be none in the future. They consider themselves somehow exempt from risk.

This self-confidence can be fatal. People with heart-attack symptoms delay seeking medical attention because the signals do not match their notions of what they think a heart attack should feel like. Likewise, a majority of patients with high blood pressure believe they can tell whether it is elevated,   according to one study – even though the condition has no symptoms. People in the blood-pressure “symptom” group acknowledged that most people cannot detect when their blood pressure rises  – but said they themselves could. (This actually made them more compliant patients. This false notion led them to follow doctors’ orders to take medication, watch their diet and exercise to control the mythical symptoms.)

Weinstein surveyed adults with risky lifestyles to see how they rate their chances of acquiring health conditions such as cancer or alcoholism, or encountering other negative events such as auto accidents or getting divorced. The response: Somewhere between average and lower than average. The bias occurred regardless of age, gender, income or education level.

People take this notion of self-control even farther by overrating the effectiveness of their actions. That inflates the self-delusion even more. On the other hand, people are reluctant to take responsibility for poor performance. They tend to blame factors outside their control, such as the difficulty of the task.

Optimism bias is fairly immune to intervention. It is difficult for those who have it to believe otherwise. They rarely alter their behavior even after being shown that their chances of early death and disease are no better than average. The reason: They still believe their own risk is relatively low.

In international studies, Americans show a stronger association of optimism bias and personal control than non-Americans. The sense of control over events and the concept of personal responsibility are deeply embedded in capitalist nations such as the United States. Such notions tend to result in faulty risk estimations, leading to a disconnect between misinformed judgment and reality.

However, optimism bias is not without its merits. The outlook reflects a high level of self-esteem, which itself is beneficial to good health. An attitude of invincibility has a way of reducing anxiety. People who are optimistic about their futures place a higher value on their health because they expect good things ahead. They are better at building social networks, which help protect health, and probably are less likely to have had their health compromised by life’s tragedies.

In personal health, fear is good but pessimism is not

Caution about health hazards leads to doing the right things. A wealth of research shows that the degree to which people feel vulnerable to health problems predicts how likely they are to engage in healthy behavior. Optimism bias leads to ignoring information about what promotes health, and a tendency toward riskier behavior. In short, there is not enough fear.

However, unrealistic pessimism can be as bad as optimism bias. People with fatalistic beliefs, consumed by hopelessness, think nothing they do will alter their destiny.

The onslaught of everything-causes-cancer news contributes to this. Indeed, a national survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults found that about half agreed with the statement: “It seems like almost everything causes cancer.” Three-fourths agreed that “there are so many recommendations about preventing cancer that it’s hard to know which ones to follow.”

Remarkably, about 1 out of 4 agreed with this: “There’s not much people can do to lower their chances of getting cancer.” Those with the strongest fatalistic beliefs were less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and more likely to continue to smoke.

Transition to where?

People with chronic disease bear the full brunt of the medical system’s fragmented care. This balkanization is encouraged by the way health-care providers are paid. Usually, no one is paid to manage a patient’s overall condition. Providers are paid for procedures, visits and dispensing prescriptions. There is no direct relationship between how much physicians earn and whether the patient improves. Chronic-disease patients see health-care providers in a number of unrelated venues, many of which do not communicate with each other.

Transitional care, which patients receive after discharge from a hospital or other health-care facility, occurs during an especially vulnerable period. Patients often do not understand the purpose of their medications or receive a detailed care plan. These oversights are especially critical in chronic-disease care because the conditions are managed largely by patients and their caregivers. As a result, nearly 1 in 6 is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of having left a health-care facility. Hospitals are paid when again the patient is readmitted.

About 1 in 7 does not make a follow-up doctor appointment within four weeks of discharge. Patients’ physicians often are not informed about the details of the care provided in the hospital. About 1 in 5 chronic-disease patients say their physicians did not do a good job of communicating about their care.

Nearly 1 out of 4 was a victim of a medical error, and nearly two-thirds of those errors created a major problem.

Cheri Lattimer, executive director of the Case Management Society of America, does not like the term “discharge,” referring to when a patient leaves the hospital.

Hospitals should call their discharge paperwork a “transitions summary,” implying that it is a proactive care plan for the patient and provider.

“That summary must be sent to the next level,” Lattimer said. “The Joint Commission says 39 percent of documentation does not get sent to the next level. Transitions of care are not just from hospitals. It is an ongoing process. They say health care is a team sport, but we don’t know who’s on the team or who to throw the ball to.”

Hospice: A runaway winner

The magazine Modern Healthcare held a “tournament” in 2011 to determine what “one person, event, organization or innovation had the biggest impact on the health-care delivery system in the past 35 years.” Hospice was “seeded” No. 12 at the beginning of voting. It was the landslide winner, beating out the Institute for Healthcare Improvement by a 3-to-1 margin.

Hospice care focuses on caring rather than curing. Most hospice care is provided in the patient’s residence. However, it is also available in hospice centers, some hospitals and long-term-care facilities.

Hospice caregivers use a variety of alternative therapeutic techniques to comfort patients. They use massage, group therapy, music therapy and pet therapy and guided imagery to supplement traditional pain-relief tactics.

Nearly 1.5 million patients were treated in hospice programs in 2008, compared with only 25,000 in 1982 when it first became a Medicare benefit. It is also covered by Medicaid and most private insurance plans. The average length of time in hospice is about 21 days. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization estimates that nearly 40 percent of 2008 U.S. deaths were in a hospice setting.

The three leading causes of death in hospice programs – cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and kidney disease – also are the easiest to predict remaining life expectancy, and they impose the greatest burdens on family caregivers.

Hospice care remains largely a white, upper-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Evidence indicates minority-group members generally are suspicious of the health-care system and are less open to the idea of withholding curative care. Many have had to forgo medical care most of their lives and have a different view of what it’s like to have nature take its course. A survey of more than 4,000 newly diagnosed cancer patients found that 80 percent of blacks said they were willing to exhaust their resources to extend life, compared with 64 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of whites.

As with palliative care, hospice sometimes prolongs life. In a 2007 study, hospice patients survived nearly a month longer than non-hospice patients with comparable conditions did. Hospice care improved survival in 4 of 6 disease categories. The largest difference was for congestive heart failure, where average survival rose from 321 to 402 days.

Nonetheless, it is difficult for some patients to choose hospice because forgoing medical care seems like accepting a death sentence. However, research shows that patients who choose hospice care do not die faster than those who do not.

In a pilot test, Aetna allowed a group of policyholders with a life expectancy of less than a year to receive hospice care without abandoning medical care. The number of patients who chose hospice shot up to 70 percent from 26 percent. The cost of care for these patients was 25 percent less, despite the concurrent care. They visited the emergency room half as often as non-hospice patients with life-limiting conditions. Their hospital and ICU use dropped by two-thirds.

For Medicare patients, hospice care saves an average of $2,309 per patient. A 2007 study found that Medicare costs would be lower for 70 percent of hospice recipients if such care were provided earlier. Cost of care was less expensive for cancer up to 233 days and non-cancer cases up to 154 days. Thereafter, hospice costs more than conventional care. However, the authors said, “More effort should be put into increasing short stays as opposed to focusing on shortening long ones.”

For example, a study of men with advanced prostate cancer showed that about half eventually turned to hospice care but often waited until a week or two before death to enter the program. Brief hospice care delivers far fewer benefits.

More than two-thirds of hospice patients receive the services at home. However, a growing number of freestanding facilities are sprouting to meet demand. Construction of new hospice centers has increased by more than 40 percent since 2000. Nearly every U.S. citizen lives within 60 minutes of a hospice center, and 88 percent live within 30 minutes.

According to a 2010 study, the length of time that nursing-home patients are in hospice has doubled in the past decade, from 46 to 93 days. The study speculated that the increase was associated with a 50 percent growth in the number of nursing-home hospice programs. Medicare pays nursing homes far  more for hospice care than the facilities would receive for standard care from Medicaid. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has recommended that standards for hospice certification be strengthened to ensure nursing-home programs are qualified to provide care.

Family history trumps genetic tests

Genetic tests have the aura of being scientific. But the old-fashioned family history appears to be more accurate and much less expensive.

A Cleveland Clinic researcher recruited 44 people to assess their risk of cancer by either preparing a  family history or relying  on a genetic test. Both indicated that about 40 percent had above-average risk – but picked the same people half the time. The genetic test did not identify the nine people who had a significant family history of colon cancer.

Likewise, researchers collected 101 genetic variants that had been tied statistically to heart disease in genome studies. They assessed and followed 19,000 women for 12 years to attempt to forecast disease. They concluded that the family history was a better predictor.

One reason family histories can be more accurate is that environment is a powerful influence on health. Family members generally share a common background, so the history reflects how shared genes expressed themselves in a given situation.

Family members often take important genetic information to their graves inadvertently without sharing it with relatives. According to one study, about 1 in 5 dying cancer patients could have shared important information with relatives through genetic counselors regarding the heritability of their conditions. In some instances, they could have left behind blood and tissue samples for future DNA testing. That would be a valuable legacy. (Genetic counselors help people understand their risk for genetic conditions. The National Society of Genetic Counselors website,, lists them by zip code.)

Less than one-third of U.S. families have documented a health history, and many physicians are not particularly insistent that they have one. The U.S. surgeon general has established a website – – to help families create a history and share it with other relatives.

Many scientists have concluded that DTC genetic tests offer very little value. They say the increased risk posed by any given gene is so small that it is not information worth acting on. The best predictors of disease and death are already well known: age, gender, family history, health behavior and biomarkers such as blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol.

An international research consortium identified 18 new gene sites associated with obesity and 13 others tied to fat distribution in the body in 2010. The two studies, which one of the researchers called “exciting,” will not have much immediate clinical impact.

Michael Jensen, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic, told The Wall Street Journal, “If you just ask people whether their parents were obese or not, the ability to predict whether a person is going to be obese is better” than by examining the identified genes.

Medicare: So few supporting so many

The trajectory of Medicare financing is sobering. Annual Medicare expenditures are expected to grow from $519 billion in 2010 to $929 billion in 2020. Spending is highly concentrated on the program’s sickest beneficiaries. About 25 percent of recipients account for 85 percent of the program’s spending. One study calculated that nearly all of the growth in Medicare expenditures from 1987 to 2002 could be traced back to beneficiaries with five or more chronic conditions.

The number of beneficiaries is expected to rise from 47 million in 2010 to 80 million in 2030. During that same period, the number of workers supporting each Medicare enrollee will decline from 3.5 to 2.3.

Medicare spending historically has grown about 2.5 percentage points faster than the economy, adjusted for inflation. This trend is a greater threat to the program’s financial sustainability than the aging of the population, according to the CBO.

The typical couple who turned 65 in 2010 and earned an average household income of $86,200 during their careers paid $109,000 in Medicare taxes over a lifetime. However, that same couple will receive an average of $343,000 in Medicare benefits. The federal government must pay the $234,000 shortfall from other revenue sources or cut spending elsewhere.

Health-care costs are also crimping Medicare beneficiaries’ household budgets. Median out-of-pocket spending as a share of income rose from about 12 percent in 1997 to more than 16 percent in 2006.

Yet a majority of Americans are not convinced Medicare is in trouble. A spring 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that only 15 percent believe the program needs a major overhaul and an additional 28 percent say it needs “major changes.”

Medicare trustees estimated in May 2011 that the program will run out of money by 2024 because of a sluggish U.S. economy and longer life-expectancy projections for beneficiaries. The Obama administration projected in 2010 that Medicare savings in the health-reform law would extend the solvency of the program from 2017 to 2029.

Congressional resolve continues to evaporate in the face of hard choices on Medicare. The sustainable growth rate (SGR), a formula it created in 1998 to calculate physician fees and control costs, has been overridden numerous times. The SGR attempts to control total Medicare spending on physician services. In theory, the more the volume of care increases, the more prices must be cut the following year. The cuts are supposed to be cumulative and retroactive to 1998.

The overridden fee cut in 2010 was supposed to be 21 percent, with additional 5 percent cuts in subsequent years. Policymakers correctly feared that enacting such cuts would result in a mass exodus of physicians from the Medicare program, and create a potential crisis in access to health-care services for the elderly.

Health reform continues the charade. An SGR fix that would waive the cumulative fee cuts originally was part of the reform bill, but it was abandoned because proponents wanted to keep reform’s price tag below $1 billion. The Medicare trustees point out that, if the SGR formula continues, Medicare payment rates would fall to 27 percent of what private insurance pays and less than half of projected Medicaid rates by 2085. It would also render 40 percent of participating health-care providers unprofitable by 2050.

At this point, SGR is little more than an accounting fig leaf that understates the federal government’s future financial obligations. It also gives Congress the illusion that it somehow can control escalating Medicare costs, despite its clearly demonstrated impotence.