The Oregon Health Study and the Medicalization of Health Policy

According to the website, the Oregon Health Study “is the first randomized controlled  experiment to examine the causal effects of having some type of insurance coverage versus having no insurance at all.”  The findings, released a few days ago, have unleashed a storm of commentary on what the investigators did and did not find in terms of links between coverage and health outcomes.  Writing  over at The Incidental Economist, Harold Pollack quotes Joseph Newhouse for the notion that the “Oregon Medicaid experiment ‘is a Rorschach test of people’s views on the ACA.’”  After the jump, I am going to try to defend that claim, although likely not in the way that good readers of Bill of Health might expect.

So here’s the funny thing: even though I am an attorney, an historian, and a bioethicist who researches health inequalities, stigma, and social justice, I actually am less of an expert on the delivery of health care services than virtually every blogger here, and likely a goodly portion of the readership, too.  When interviewing for a job as a prawf some years ago, I was asked for my opinion on the fate of the ACA (then still in Congress), and I had to shrug and say that I really was not up to date on all of the provisions of the bill nor of its likely passage, nor of its potential impact.  (No, I did not get the job!).

This is not because of anti-intellectualism, I believe (and hope!).  This is rather because of my engagement with the overwhelming evidence that access to health care services is simply not a prime determinant of health and its distribution in human populations.  In a seminal 2007 essay in Health Affairs, Paula Lantz, Richard Lichtenstein, and the good Dr. Pollack himself note that “Lack of access to health care is not the fundamental cause of health vulnerability or social disparities in health” (p. 1256).*  The authors go on to warn of the limits of medicalizing health policy, and suggest that if we want to use laws and policies to improve overall population health and compress health inequities, we need to go way beyond simply expanding access to basic health care services.

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May 22 (note new date): Dan Brock delivering the Gay Lecture on “The Future of Bioethics”

Please join the Division of Medical Ethics for:

The 2013 George W. Gay Lecture in Medical Ethics

Dan W. Brock, PhD
Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, HMS

“The Future of Bioethics”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 (note new date)
4:00 PM

Harvard Medical School, Tosteson Medical Education Center

Carl W. Walter Amphitheater
260 Longwood Avenue, Boston

Please pass this invitation along to other interested friends and colleagues.
RSVP to  DME@hms.harvard.edu.

The George W. Gay Lecture is the oldest endowed lectureship at Harvard Medical School, and quite possibly the oldest medical ethics lectureship in the United States. The lectureship was established in 1917 by a $1,000 gift from Dr. George Washington Gay, an 1868 graduate of HMS. Since its inception, many of the nation’s most influential physicians, scientists, researchers and social observers, including Erich Fromm, Felix Frankfurter, Margaret Mead, Elizabeth Kübler Ross, E.O. Wilson, and Joshua Lederberg have given the Gay Lecture. Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof and Donald Berwick have given recent Gay Lectures.