What the Tell-Tale Heart Tells Us About Healthcare

At the end of his short story, Edgar Allen Poe's haunted murderous protagonist lets loose in front of the unsuspecting police officers:

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

It is this story that inspired the title of a paper we published a few years ago on how we could detect the increase (and subsequent decrease) of myocardial infarctions coincident with the rise and fall of the use of Vioxx. This investigation relied solely on the informational byproducts of healthcare delivery. This weekend a Senate report on the risk of Avandia and what was known by GSK came to light. This resonated because we had recently published an article in Diabetes Care about the rapid identification of an increased risk of myocardial infarction with Avandia in patients with diabetes mellitus as compared to other drugs, even drugs in the same class, such as Pioglitazone. Whereas the current headlines are about what the pharmaceutical company knew or dissimulated, there is a broader question that needs addressing: Should every healthcare system not be instrumented so that the clinical leaders of these systems should know whether there are unexpected changes in the risks and health status of their patient populations?

Often, the state of clinical practice is compared unfavorably to the practice of commercial air travel, but what remains underemphasized is that as a system, we are flying blind. There is no local, regional or national air-traffic-controller-equivalent for the healthcare system. Should not the local hospital, and Department of Public Health be the first to know if there is about to be a local health collision or crash? Should not such local surveillance systems run in parallel to regional and national systems? Do we not need multi-level redundancy and open communication to avoid tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths? Further, even as the federal government becomes more aware of the need of such instrumentation, we all expect that our local healthcare systems and health authorities should know of any untoward health trends. Perhaps healthcare systems will start to compete on being able to provide timely and localized health trend data to their customers. Unfortunately right now, the major investments in such health market intelligence is to the payors (i.e. the insurers) who quite reasonably want to know what are the local risks, performance and trends for each of their contracts. Will it take regulation or market competition to make such data extraction and return to patients a matter of course? Let's hope we do not have to wait for a post-mortem Poe'esque orgy of recrimination to find out.

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