The 1940 biopic Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet made famous both the physician who found a treatment for syphilis and the idea there was a single cure for every disease. Most of the old infectious killers have been eradicated, or nearly so, by drugs and vaccines, but the era of the magic bullet is coming to a close. Today’s medical challenges are chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s – diseases that can’t be cured, but only prevented or managed – and we’re trying to address them with a health care delivery system made inefficient in part by the fact that it is caring for chronically ill patients as if they had acute ailments.
Yet the notion that there’s a single solution to the conundrum of today’s health care delivery system lives on. Proponents of ideas like consumer-driven health care, electronic medical records, the patient centered medical home, comparative effectiveness research, ACOs, and training primary care doctors like to imagine that their preferred solution is the magic bullet, the one technocratic fix that’s going to bring down costs and improve quality.
Maybe it’s time to take a hint from another complex problem: climate change. In a paper published in Science in 2004, climate scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala argued that rather than waiting around for some new innovation that will magically make all that excess carbon go away, we should be tackling carbon emissions with existing technologies.
Socolow and Pacala called their seven intervention ideas “wedges” because of their shape on the graph (left). Each intervention has a small effect on the level of carbon dioxide emissions, and each effect shows up on the graph as a slice of the stabilization triangle, shaped like a wedge. Put into effect simultaneously, there are enough emissions-reducing technologies–such as carbon capture and storage at power plants and broader use of solar, wind, and nuclear power—to stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for the next 50 years.
In a speech last week at a Health Affairs briefing on “The New Urgency of Cost Control,” Don Berwick, the Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, applied Socolow and Pacala’s idea to health care costs, arguing that we need to look at a broad range of existing delivery and payment system reforms—each of which is too small to stabilize medical costs individually, but that meet that goal when taken together.