The rise and fall of the medical expert

Has the election of Donald Trump signalled a new era? Expert advice and scientific evidence seem to be taking a backseat while populism and an anti-elite ethos are gaining momentum. In Australia this may further fuel non-scientific opinions and scepticism towards medical expertise and science in general. Trumpism is, of course, not new. Australia has had its fair share of health policy based on little or no evidence.

Throughout history experts and scientific evidence have often been viewed with suspicion. The election of Donald Trump is a case in point. “Donald Trump’s lack of respect for science is alarming,” said the Scientific American.

Indeed, Trump is doing nobody a favour by, for example, spreading the incorrect and unproven message that vaccines cause autism. Apparently seventy percent of Trump voters believe this is true, despite the existence of extensive scientific safety data demystifying the dangerous misperception.

In Australia there are also signs that medical expertise is undervalued. The funding withdrawal for several primary care research initiatives are illustrative of the common perception about objective sources of information.

A classic case of dismissing medical expertise is the My Health Record (formerly PCEHR). The first big cracks in this government project started to appear in 2013, when the medical leads decided to resign en masse. More recently we have seen similar issues with the Medical Home project, which had full support from the profession until it was radically changed.

Then there are the changes to legislation around medical cannabis, which have created a perception of easy access for patients. Although there are plenty of anecdotal reports from people who have experienced symptomatic relief with cannabis for a range of conditions, doctors are still waiting for the research to provide information on indications, efficacy, safety and quality of cannabis products.

Science vs everything else

Vested interests

“Most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas,” write Clarke & Lawler in The Conversation. “But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates.”

When trying to inform government policy, experts are up against lobbyists who often represent large corporate commercial interests. An example is the campaign by some of the large corporate after hours home visit services which seem to be mainly concerned about their profitability.

I’ve received reports from these services (who mostly employ non-GPs) delivering repeat prescriptions after hours – which is of course inappropriate use of tax-funded health services and is concerning, especially as Medicare funds are scarce at the moment.

The facts are clear: since the bulk-billing National Home Doctor Service in the ACT arrived, home visits rose from 1588 in 2013-14 to 20,556 in the last financial year. This trend is happening at a national scale and there is no reasonable explanation for the explosion in urgent home visits.

What we need is an ethical and efficient after hours service that works seamlessly with day-time medical services.

Another example where profit comes first is Pathology Australia, representing several big corporates, who transformed their public ‘don’t kill bulk bill’ to a backdoor deal with the government to reduce the rent they pay to family practices for co-locating profitable pathology collection rooms.

Vested interest campaigns have eroded confidence in experts and scientific evidence for a long time – and not just in the health industry (see video below).

Replacing experts

Other trends seem to indicate that experts are regarded as expendable and should be replaced by others – because it is deemed cheaper or more efficient. Examples are physiotherapists prescribing opiates in emergency departments, radiographers reporting on scans and non-medical staff performing gastroscopies.

Who thinks I should fly this plane?

There are situations where tasks can be safely delegated within a supervised team environment. However, the evidence that task substitution leads to better health outcomes or lower costs is minimal. The reality is, as always, more complex – think about the Canberra nurse-led clinic that did not ease pressure on the hospital but instead increased emergency department presentations.

The retail pharmacy sector is lobbying intensively to get their non-scientific business proposals approved by governments across Australia. Their justification for taking over parts of general practice is to ‘relieve pressure on busy GPs’. Again, this is misleading, incorrect and not supported by medical organisations.

Research suggests that it’s all about the business of pharmacy and that the sector shows little interest in working cooperatively with GP teams: only one-fifth of pharmacies participating in a Victorian experiment had contacted the GPs of the patients involved.

This is disappointing as we’re desperately trying to reduce fragmentation and work better together in the interest of our patients. At the same time there are many ways in which pharmacists could add value.

Having more options as health consumer sounds appealing but doesn’t necessarily make us healthier or happier. Sometimes less is more. For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) recommends against a range of popular screening tests because of lack of evidence and the potential of harm for patients, not to mention the added costs to the health system.

The RACGP has also published a list of tests, treatments and procedures doctors and consumers should question. This is not always easy to explain to patients, but at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do for all parties involved.

Expertise: a subjective thing?

Annabel Crabb said in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Expertise is now a subjective thing. You can discover much about people’s deep ideological beliefs or prejudices simply by observing what advice they accept without question, and what they take with a grain of salt. Sometimes there is little logic to the position.”

The best defence is a good offence and when medical experts object to proposals or policy based on opinion instead of science, they are usually accused of defending their territory or ‘turf’ – which distracts from the real message of course.

Expert opinions and scientific evidence are not a fix for all our problems. There are other factors that need to be taken into account. However, as populist movements like trumpism are gaining momentum, the anti-elite ethos may further fuel non-scientific opinions and scepticism towards medical expertise and science in general. This is a real health risk and we should look at why this is happening and what we can do to improve things.

Follow me on Twitter: @EdwinKruysDisclaimer and disclosure notice.

Video: Why aren’t people listening to science?

5 reasons why task substitution by pharmacists needs more thought

So there is a budget crisis. There’s also a new federal Health Minister. And, here it comes, community pharmacies are negotiating over a billion-dollar deal with the Government: The Community Pharmacy Agreement sets out the Government funding pharmacists receive for dispensing PBS medicines.

If it’s up to the Pharmacy Guild, pharmacists will be:

  • Filling repeat prescriptions to ‘free up doctors time’
  • Treating ‘easy’ minor ailments
  • Giving more vaccinations (e.g. a flu-shot for $25 with no Medicare rebate)
  • Doing ‘easy’ health checks, screening and preventive health services
  • Giving mental health support.

At first glance this improves access to health services and saves tax payers bucket loads of health dollars. Here are 5 reasons why role and task substitution by pharmacists needs more thought:

#1: Avoiding the doctor is probably not going to help

A repeat prescription or a vaccination is a valuable opportunity for a family doctor to screen for, and treat health issues before they escalate. This is one of the strengths of general practice. If people don’t come in because they get their cholesterol or blood pressure scripts from the pharmacist every 6 months, this system will come at a cost.

#2: We are treating people (not ailments)

People are more than the sum of their ailments. Over the years there have been many attempts to replace the doctor with algorithms, machines and computers, and they have all failed.

The human body and mind are complicated. As they say, if you think a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.

#3: Don’t put the cart before the horse

If it’s improved access or multi-disciplinary care we’re after, then strengthen general practice. Unfortunately the opposite is happening: Practice nurse support has been cancelled, and I won’t mention the Medicare rebate cuts and freeze.

#4: Disruption is not innovation

A common mistake is to assume that disruption is the same as innovation. Disruptive services – like those suggested by community pharmacists – may be simple or convenient, but the quality will be poorer.

A recent study showed that only 3 out of 32 fish oil supplements contain what the label says; I believe pharmacies should focus on evidence-based medication advice and quality control of over-the-counter drugs.

#5: Conflicts of interest

A question we should ask is: Can the person who is selling the drugs give independent health advice? Pharmacies face reduced profits because the Government has set lower prices for generic medications under the price disclosure arrangements.

Although it is understandable pharmacies are looking for other income streams, it is unlikely that the proposal by the Pharmacist Guild is a win-win solution. There is value in team work, but only if we work genuinly together.