Dr. Arnold Relman, Outspoken Medical Editor, Dies at 91
By Douglas Martin
The New York Times, June 21, 2014
In a provocative essay in the New England journal on Oct. 23, 1980, Dr. Relman, the editor in chief, issued the clarion call that would resound through his career, assailing the American health care system as caring more about making money than curing the sick. He called it a “new medical-industrial complex.”
His targets were not the old-line drug companies and medical-equipment suppliers, but rather a new generation of health care and medical services — profit-driven hospitals and nursing homes, diagnostic laboratories, home-care services, kidney dialysis centers and other businesses that made up a multibillion-dollar industry.
“The private health care industry is primarily interested in selling services that are profitable, but patients are interested only in services that they need,” he wrote. In an editorial, The Times said he had “raised a timely warning.”
In 2012, asked how his prediction had turned out, Dr. Relman said medical profiteering had become even worse than he could have imagined.
His prescription was a single taxpayer-supported insurance system, like Medicare, to replace hundreds of private, high-overhead insurance companies, which he called “parasites.” To control costs, he advocated that doctors be paid a salary rather than a fee for each service performed.
Dr. Relman recognized that his recommendations for repairing the health care system might be politically impossible, but he insisted that it was imperative to keep trying. Though he said he was glad that the health care law signed by President Obama in 2010 enabled more people to get insurance, he saw the legislation as a partial reform at best.
The health care system, he said, was in need of a more aggressive solution to fundamental problems, which he had discussed, somewhat philosophically, in an interview with Technology Review in 1989.
“Many people think that doctors make their recommendations from a basis of scientific certainty, that the facts are very clear and there’s only one way to diagnose or treat an illness,” he told the review. “In reality, that’s not always the case. Many things are a matter of conjecture, tradition, convenience, habit. In this gray area, where the facts are not clear and one has to make certain assumptions, it is unfortunately very easy to do things primarily because they are economically attractive.”
The Arnold Relman Memorial Fund
Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP)
From “Physicians and Politics” by Arnold S. Relman, M.D., in JAMA Internal Medicine, June 2, 2014:
“A new health care system that provides universal access and is affordable and efficient will be difficult to achieve. The private insurers and all the other businesses that profit from the current commercial system will resist it. Major reform will need wide public support, which in turn will rely on advocacy by the medical profession. But I believe that reform will nevertheless be eventually enacted because it meets a widely shared and growing public desire for more fairness in an American society pervaded by inequality in access to good health care and many other social benefits.
“Physicians have a unique power to reshape the medical care system. They are what makes it work and are best qualified to use and evaluate its resources. But if they never unite to press for major reform, the future of health care in the United States will indeed be bleak. We will end up either with a system controlled by blind market forces or with a system entangled in complicated and intrusive government regulations. In either case it would be impossible to practice good patient-centered medicine, and the quality and effectiveness of our health care system would sink even lower among the ranks of developed countries. It is up to the medical profession to see that this does not happen.”
Dr. Arnold S. Relman, professor emeritus of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, and past editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, died on June 17, 2014. He was 91.
Dr. Relman was one of the most distinguished figures in U.S. medicine, and he leaves a rich legacy of research and writing on the economic, ethical, legal and social dimensions of health care.
An important part of this legacy is embodied in his influential book, “A Second Opinion: A Plan for Universal Coverage Serving Patients Over Profit,” in which he makes an impassioned case for establishing “a single-payer system sponsored by the federal government” coupled with “a reorganized medical care system based on independent multispecialty group practice with salaried physicians.”
Among Dr. Relman’s many achievements during his tenure as editor-in-chief at the NEJM, he oversaw the journal’s publication of “A National Health Program for the United States: A Physicians’ Proposal,” by Dr. David U. Himmelstein, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, and 29 others. At the time, in 1989, the article’s appearance in the NEJM represented a major breakthrough for the mainstream discussion of single payer in the medical profession. It also served as a seminal article in the establishment of Physicians for a National Health Program.
In addition to Dr. Relman’s numerous awards and honors from professional societies, scientific academies, and universities, in November 2013 he was presented with PNHP’s Dr. Quentin D. Young Health Activist Award for his unswerving advocacy for a more just and equitable health care system in the United States.
Dr. Relman leaves his wife, Dr. Marcia Angell; two sons, Dr. David Relman and John Relman; a daughter, Margaret Batten; six granddaughters; and two stepdaughters, Lara and Eliza Goitein.
Shortly before his death, Dr. Relman asked that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be directed to PNHP.
Physicians for a National Health Program is honoring Dr. Relman’s legacy by establishing The Arnold Relman Memorial Fund, dedicated to expanding PNHP’s special outreach programs to the medical profession, including to medical residents and fellows, to advance the understanding and realization of Dr. Relman’s vision.
The Arnold Relman Memorial Fund:https://org.salsalabs.com/o/307/p/salsa/web/common/public/content?conten…
Although some have described Dr. Relman’s 1980 New England Journal of Medicine essay on the medical-industrial complex as controversial, it would better be described as a release of the medical profession from the shackles of the old conservative guard of organized medicine. Although always exercising editorial independence, the NEJM was a publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society – the state chapter of organized medicine. For those of us on the West Coast who were somewhat removed from Boston and Chicago medical politics, Dr. Relman became and remained a beacon of hope for the future of a health care system that would be wholly dedicated to the patient rather than to vested interests.
Perhaps the greatest breakthrough was in 1989 when he published in NEJM “A National Health Program for the United States: A Physicians’ Proposal,” by Dr. David U. Himmelstein, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, and 29 others. That signaled the start of a movement coming from within the medical profession in support of health care justice for all.
Although Dr. Relman had requested that donations be made to PNHP in lieu of flowers, the paramount action that we should take is to honor his legacy by intensifying our efforts to transform our health care system from a medical-industrial complex into a nirvana of the healing arts. That does require that we become more thoroughly enmeshed in technical details such as enacting an Expanded and Improved Medicare for All. But Bud Relman wouldn’t have it any other way.