New York Times health policy reporter Gardiner Harris responded to THCB founder and publisher Matthew Holt’s comments on the recent series of reports he has authored with business writer Reed Abelson questioning the science behind the Dartmouth Atlas. Gardiner had this to say in defense of his newspaper’s investigation:
The main point of Reed’s and my pieces about the Dartmouth work is that the data are simply not good enough to guide spending decisions in the government’s $484 billion Medicare program. If the Dartmouth researchers had acknowledged this point, our story would not have been all that interesting. But they cannot bring themselves to do this, and in fact they have repeatedly exaggerated and mischaracterized their own work in public settings to suggest it can be prescriptive.
An ancillary point was to warn those on capitol hill, the administration and journalists to be wary of those highly popular maps from the Atlas. You have scoffed that it’s a small thing that the Dartmouth researchers fail to adjust their online data for price and illness. But misunderstandings about this are widespread. That landmark piece by Dr. Gawande that you cited used the Atlas’s unadjusted data. Dozens of stories in newspapers and magazines around the country have used the unadjusted data to criticize health institutions. Even David Cutler, among the top health economists in the country, was unaware that the atlas offered largely unadjusted data.
Accuracy may seem a small point to you. It is not to us.
Our Friday piece also pointed out that Dr. Elliott Fisher and Mr. Jon Skinner claimed that their 2003 Annals pieces had found a negative correlation between spending and outcomes. In fact, the pieces found no correlation between spending and outcomes. This is not a small distinction. If there’s a negative correlation, cuts in spending will actually improve health. If no correlation has been found, then cuts become far harder and perhaps more painful. We cannot go into reforms of our healthcare system believing that the work will be easy. But that is what the Dartmouth researchers have suggested, and this siren song has had an enormous impact on Capitol Hill.
In an aside, when was the last time you saw researchers so profoundly mischaracterize their own work? How is it possible that they could claim their annals pieces concluded something when they didn’t? I can’t remember ever seeing that happen.