Not a trivial or academic question. Time magazine identified the NBC's Meet the Press moderator and Washington bureau chief as one of the 100 most influential people in world in 2008. His loss at such a young age, 58, is tragic. His ability to make complex topics clear for the public and to ask the hard questions will be missed in this the most historic presidential races in American history.
But was his sudden passing and fatal heart attack an avoidable tragedy? His internist, Dr. Michael Newman, who is affiliated with George Washington Medical Center, noted that Mr. Russert died of a sudden coronary thrombosis, which can occur without warning. Mr. Russert had been diagnosed with asymptomatic heart disease which reportedly was well-controlled with medication and exercise. He passed a cardiac stress test in late April. It seems like he got the appropriate care.
Yet, our healthcare system only provides the right preventive care 55 percent of the time. What medical students know, lowering blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, and arranging age-appropriate cancer screenings, shown to save lives, are not done routinely in this country. The ability of doctors and insurance plans to provide this
basic fundamental care varies by about 20 percent. If one compared the safety performance of the top 10 percent of airlines with the national average, the quality gap was far less at less than 1 percent.
The National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) estimates that had all doctors and insurance plans performed at the level of the nation's top 10 percent that 80,000 Americans, all who had health insurance, would have avoided premature death. That is twice the number of breast cancer deaths annually. A study of 20,000 patients in 12 US major cities found that only 68 percent of those with heart disease and only 65 percent of those with high blood pressure received the recommended care developed by expert committees.
Unfortunately, one can't assume that the best preventive care is done at university medical centers. A study in California found that the vertically integrated healthcare organization Kaiser Permanente outperformed both university medical centers and community hospitals in decreasing their patients' heart attack risk and death by 30 percent. The integrated VA healthcare system was also found to outperform community hospitals in caring for diabetics. It consistently ensured its patients got the right medications at the right dosages better that those in the communities around them.
It seems that as a country we take for granted the failings of the healthcare system which are occurring with alarming frequency. As we mourn the unexpected passing of a great journalist, we should instead ask ourselves whether there were systematic failures in the healthcare system that Mr. Russert relied on to keep him well? The goal wouldn't be to find negligence or to identify scapegoats, as like the aviation industry, the delivery of healthcare is too complex to simply isolate one person or entity that resulted in the mishap. It is very likely that General Electric, NBC's parent company, provided him with health insurance options that were accredited by NCQA as excellent in keeping people healthy.
Is it possible, however, that the recommended care wasn't delivered? As our nation struggles with how to make the healthcare system more affordable, accessible, and with higher quality, the debate boils down to who is best in determining the right care at the right time. Is the onus on patients? Does the responsibility rest on the healthcare industry? It is an important conversation our country must have and certainly would have gone better with a skilled moderator like Mr. Russert. He will be deeply missed.