Complex Problems Like Healthcare
In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the healthcare legislation, I found Atul Gawande's commentary on complex or "wicked" problems very compelling:
A few days ago, while awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on the Obama health-care law, I called a few doctor friends around the country. I asked them if they could tell me about current patients whose health had been affected by a lack of insurance.
“This falls under the ‘too numerous to count’ section,” a New Jersey internist said. A vascular surgeon in Indianapolis told me about a man in his fifties who’d had a large abdominal aortic aneurysm. Doctors knew for months that it was in danger of rupturing, but, since he wasn’t insured, his local private hospital wouldn’t fix it. Finally, it indeed began to rupture. Rupture is an often fatal development, but the man—in pain, with the blood flow to his legs gone— made it to an emergency room. Then the hospital put him in an ambulance to Indiana University, arguing the patient’s condition was “too complex.” My friend got him through, but he’s very lucky to be alive.
Another friend, an oncologist in Marietta, Ohio, told me about three women in their forties and fifties he was treating for advanced cervical cancer. A pap smear would have caught their cancers far sooner. But since they didn’t have insurance, their cancers were only recognized when they caused profuse bleeding. Now they required radiation and chemotherapy if they were to have a chance of surviving.
A colleague practicing family medicine in Las Vegas told me about his clinic’s cleaning lady, who came to him in desperation about her uninsured husband. He had a painful rectal fistula—a chronically draining infection. Surgery could cure the condition, but hospitals required him to pay for the procedure in advance, and, as unskilled laborers, the couple didn’t remotely have the money. He’d lived in misery for nine months so far. The couple had nowhere to turn. Neither did the doctor.
The litany of misery was as terrible as it was routine. An internist in my Ohio home town put me on the phone with an uninsured fifty-five-year-old tanning-salon owner who’d had a heart attack. She was now unable to pay the bills either for the cardiac stent that saved her or for the medications that she needs to prevent a second heart attack. Outside Philadelphia, there was a home-care nurse who’d lost her job when she developed partial paralysis as a result of a rare autoimmune complication from the flu shot that her employers required her to get. Then she lost the insurance that paid for the medications that had been reversing the condition.
Tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to basic care for prevention and treatment of illness. For decades, there’s been wide support for universal health care. Finally, with the passage of Obamacare, two years ago, we did something about it. The law would provide coverage to people like those my friends told me about, either through its expansion of Medicaid eligibility or through subsidized private insurance. Yet the country has remained convulsed by battles over whether we should implement this plan—or any particular plan. Now that the Supreme Court has largely upheld Obamacare, it’s tempting to imagine that the battles will subside. There’s reason to think that they won’t.
In 1973, two social scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, defined a class of problems they called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one’s point of view. They are problems such as poverty, obesity, where to put a new highway—or how to make sure that people have adequate health care.
They are the opposite of “tame problems,” which can be crisply defined, completely understood, and fixed through technical solutions. Tame problems are not necessarily simple—they include putting a man on the moon or devising a cure for diabetes. They are, however, solvable. Solutions to tame problems either work or they don’t.
Solutions to wicked problems, by contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can’t try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.
Two decades ago, the economist Albert O. Hirschman published a historical study of the opposition to basic social advances; “the rhetoric of intransigence,” as he put it. He examined the structure of arguments—in the eighteenth century, against expansions of basic rights, such as freedom of speech, thought, and religion; in the nineteenth century, against widening the range of citizens who could vote and participate in power; and, in the twentieth century, against government-assured minimal levels of education, economic well-being, and security. In each instance, the reforms aimed to address deep, pressing, and complex societal problems—wicked problems, as we might call them. The reforms pursued straightforward goals but required inherently complicated, difficult-to-explain means of implementation. And, in each instance, Hirschman observed, reactionary argument took three basic forms: perversity, futility, and jeopardy.
The perversity thesis is that the change will not just fail but make the problem worse. The futility thesis is that the change can’t make a meaningful difference, and therefore won’t be worth the effort. We hear both of these lines of argument against the health-reform law. By providing coverage for everyone, it will drive up the system’s costs and make health care unaffordable for even more people. And, some say, people can get care in emergency rooms and through charity, so the law won’t do any real good. In fact, a slew of evidence indicates otherwise—from the many countries that have both universal coverage (whether through government or private insurers) and lower per-capita costs; from the major improvements in health that uninsured Americans experience when they qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. The reality is unavoidable for anyone who notices what it’s like to be a person who develops illness without insurance.
The jeopardy thesis is that the change will impose unacceptable costs upon society—that what we lose will be far more precious than what we gain. This is the sharpest line of attack in the health-care debate. Obamacare’s critics argue that the law will destroy our economy, undermine health care for the elderly, dampen innovation, and infringe on our liberty. Hence their efforts to persuade governors not to coöperate with the program, Congress not to provide the funds authorized under the law, and the courts to throw it out all together.
The rhetoric of intransigence favors extreme predictions, which are seldom borne out. Troubles do arise, but the reforms evolve, as they must. Adjustments are made. And when people are determined to succeed, progress generally happens. The reality of trying to solve a wicked problem is that action of any kind presents risks and uncertainties. Yet so does inaction. All that leaders can do is weigh the possibilities as best they can and find a way forward.
They must want to make the effort, however. That’s a key factor. The major social advances of the past three centuries have required widening our sphere of moral inclusion. During the nineteenth century, for instance, most American leaders believed in a right to vote—but not in extending it to women and black people. Likewise, most American leaders, regardless of their politics, believe people’s health-care needs should be met; they’ve sought to insure that soldiers, the elderly, the disabled, and children, not to mention themselves, have access to good care. But many draw their circle of concern narrowly; they continue to resist the idea that people without adequate insurance are anything like these deserving others.
And so the fate of the uninsured remains embattled—vulnerable, in particular, to the maneuvering for political control. The partisan desire to deny the President success remains powerful. Many levers of obstruction remain; many hands will be reaching for them.
For all that, the Court’s ruling keeps alive the prospect that our society will expand its circle of moral concern to include the millions who now lack insurance. Beneath the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act lies a simple truth. We are all born frail and mortal—and, over the course of our lives, we all need health care. Americans are on our way to recognizing this. If we actually do—now, that would be wicked.
The article can be found at this link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/06/something-wicked-this-way-comes.html