St. Joseph London Hospital is taking heat over accusations of performing medically unnecessary cardiac catheterizations and other invasive cardiac procedures, and a look at the health data by a Kentucky physician suggests that the phenomenon is broader and reflects cultural problem in Eastern Kentucky.
An examination of health data by Dr. Peter Hasselbacher, a retired internist and professor emeritus at the University of Louisville, confirmed that St. Joseph London performed a large number of invasive heart procedures for such a relatively small, rural hospital. Many patients have sued the hospital, alleging unnecessary procedures, notes a story in The Courier-Journal. And when the hospital came under federal supervision, the frequency of its most commonly performed stent-angioplasty procedure dropped by 37 percent, Hasselbacher reports on his Kentucky Health Policy Institute blog.
As the number of St. Joseph London procedures dropped sharply, there was a more dramatic increase in catheterizations and angioplasties statewide. From 2010 to 2011, the number of the most commonly reported angioplasties in Kentucky increased from 12,803 to 22,688, a 77 percent increase, reports Hasselbracher.
This map showing how many people living in each of Kentucky’s counties underwent a percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) in 2010. This is the most common invasive cardiac procedure in Kentucky and is used to prevent and treat heart attacks.
In this map, the darker the shade of blue, the greater percentage of people living in that county had an angioplasty in 2010. The differences among the counties is staggering. It ranges from a low of 42 people per 100,000 in a single year, all the way up to 1,700 per 100,000 – a 40-fold difference. In the counties with the highest rates, between 1 percent and 2 percent of the county's population underwent the procedure in a single year.
These rates are based on where people live, rather than where they go to the hospital, and the counties with the highest rates are in Appalachia. Hasselbacher calls Eastern Kentucky is "an angioplasty factory" and says the phenomenon can't be be fully explained by the simple fact that people in the region are sicker than those in the rest of the state; he offers another explanation.
"It is my belief that a major, perhaps even the major segment of the economy of Eastern Kentucky revolves around the getting of disability and the keeping of disability" and its government benefits, Hasselbacher writes. "As other industries such as coal and tobacco have faded in importance, the pursuit of disability, medically justified and not, has drained away resources from medical services into an ersatz unemployment and social support program."
Hasselbacher, left, says he doesn't wish to imply that the people of Eastern Kentucky are morally distinguishable from the rest of us, or that their health-care professionals are any less professional. He acknowledges that the region has had an uphill struggle for many years, and it is easy for providers to fall into the trap of wanting to do everything and anything to help patients.
"A culture has evolved in which being sick or just having a diagnosis of being sick is a gateway to economic security for people and professionals alike," Hasselbacher writes. "Some patients, doctors, hospitals, and lawyers wittingly or unwittingly support that process. Doing medially unnecessary diagnostic testing and treatment is part of that culture. It is also good for business." (Read more)