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“The Most Corrupt Health System Globally Is That in the US. Unfortunately It is Also the Most Influential Medical System”


In response to this recent post, I received the following from an individual who prefers to be called “a fraud investigator from the United Kingdom.”


I was interested to read your points and observations about health care and the foreign official issue. Notwithstanding whether or not employees and physicians connected to state owned or controlled hospitals etc are foreign officials, there is a very real concern, certainly in the UK, that financial interests undermine medical decision making. Indeed there are various studies which appear to prove the effect.

I know from experience there is a resultant detriment to state funds here, so in this context and in the absence of other meaningful regulation of health care corruption, the broad use of “foreign officials” is welcome.

Many people working in my industry recognise that health care presents unique issues with corruption. This may be explained by market forces. For example, if you ‘marketize’ an essential service where the purchasers are entirely reliant on people with financial interests (Physicians) to decide what is best for them, and at the same time patients cannot challenge those people without potentially jeopardizing their own care, it is arguable that such a market cannot ever function effectively, particularly when huge amounts of money are involved.

Health care is also unique in how and why it is utilized. You can walk away from your lawyer, accountant etc if you feel uncomfortable, but you can’t so easily walk away from a Physician who may hold the key to curing you. It follows that you are very unlikely to question or care about their financial interests, particularly when your insurer or the government is paying most of the costs.

Ultimately though, patients not only trust Physicians based on them being people of high public standing, but they also have to trust Physicians if they are to be confident of getting well. It is this inherent trust which is exploited and undermined by financial interests. I think everyone knows fundamentally how wrong it is for payments to be made to Physicians and other health care professionals, the question is how to stop the practices and to cure the underlying cultural cause.

Within the US health care sector there are agencies who use well intentioned laws to prosecute wrongdoing such as under Stark or the Federal Anti-Kickback statute; HHS-OIG and the FBI publicize high profile prosecutions very frequently. However, those efforts appear never ending – presumably because the profits are so great that for many people it is considered worth taking the risk. However, I also know in some parts of the US that businesses are unable to compete for patients on a legitimate basis because all other providers are paying kickbacks to secure business.

My interest and point in contacting you, is one of culture. Health care is an essential need for everyone and the corruption of those services affects all levels of society globally. Unfortunately, the US has suffered so much misconduct in medical practices that it has become almost the norm. For example, the very idea of so called “Patient Recruiters” goes against everything I understand to be reasonable yet they form part of the structure of health care provision in the US.

If you consider – Pharma payments, medical devices such as cardiac implants, CPD coding, patient recruiting, hospital kickbacks, pathology overuse, durable medical equipment and ambulatory care as headline issues (there are many others), you will find the US system is rife with problems. Although nowhere near to the same extent here in the UK, it is clear that in India, Serbia, Greece, China, Russia and many other countries there are massive issues with corruption in health care. However, my view and I suspect that of many others, is the most corrupt health system globally is that in the US, primarily due to conflicts of interest. Unfortunately it is also the most influential medical system.

The corruption is partly explained by the lack of transparency around pricing and proven clinical benefits. For example, I travelled to the US not so long ago and required a common over the counter remedy available in the UK for about 15 dollars. In the US, the same medicine is prescription only and costs $150 dollars plus $150 dollars to see a Physician for the prescription. Fortunately, a colleague had brought some with him as on his last trip he had ended up paying the $300 dollars.

Another example is just looking at all the people wearing physiotherapy aids. I couldn’t quite believe it when I was just walking around a US city, but came to understand that there is big money in prescribing pointless wrist, knee, elbow supports and the like. The reason for these two simple examples is to show that pricing in the US is out of control and that treatments of questionable clinical benefit are routinely offered and accepted.

What I wonder is:

  • How much global health care corruption can be accounted for by large corporates which are either directly based or primarily selling in the US (Pharma and device manufacturers in particular)?
  • Is the issue in fact that financial practices designed to influence Physicians’ independent decision making have become so commonplace in the US that they are replicated overseas as a matter of course? In other words if usual business practice in the US is on a corrupt basis, and indeed is necessary just to compete with rivals, then when those corporate move into overseas markets the natural tendency must be to use the same methods. This is certainly evident in FCPA cases in China. It would be easy to make a lot more discussion around what happens when US corporate practices are applied in countries with endemic corruption issues.
  • Would it be better to have an anti-corruption focus and international agreement specifically targeting designated sectors – health in this case but also perhaps mining, energy and other areas where problems are similar on a global level, are well known about and the market is one which all people are to an extent dependent on?

One final thought/question. Should the US be policing health care overseas under the guise of the “foreign official” enforcement theory or should the US be policing it by redefining how businesses operate in the US as a starting point and then applying those standards overseas?

I will certainly continue to watch developments on your website with interest and thank you for your excellent insights – do keep up the good work.

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