No, not really. But Wennberg’s disciples at Dartmouth are coming out with so many uncomfortable facts for the medical-industrial complex that it’s hard to keep count. Starting by introducing the notion of practice variation 30 years ago, the group is now turbo-charging its research production, and basically all of it is bad news for anyone pretending that “American health care is the best in the world”. To paraphrase Uwe Reinhardt, how can the American healthcare not be as good as American health care?
In just the last couple of years not only has the Dartmouth crowd found that care delivered in areas with fewer doctors, and using less advanced technology, leads to better outcomes at lower costs, but they’ve also found that academic medical centers vary threefold in their efficiency of inputs (and costs) to get the same outputs, and most recently that hospital system and location is a better indicator of resource use than population acuity.
And, for the medical establishment, the news gets worse. For the last five or so years, those of us who think that we’ve already got plenty of doctors per head, as we doubled the number in medical school in the 1970s and 1980s and are still waiting for the smaller generations trained in the 1960s to retire, have been drowned out by hysteria from the medical establishment about an impending “physician shortage”. That is of course code for the taxpayer (via Medicare which funds most medical education) to support the creation of new physician residency slots, creating more specialists, who’ll then start applying more medical technology to all of us, which will contribute to more flat of the curve medicine. But I won’t give you a potted Fuchs/Enthoven class here (although you can search around plenty in THCB if you want more).
Today in Health Affairs (or you can read the potted version in Forbes), Dartmouth researcher David Goodman and his team (including Wennberg) cry bullshit on the “we need more doctors” meme. While the big academic centers which get the money from training them would love to have more residents, by examining one type of intensive medical process — caring for patients at the end of life in ICUs — Goodman et al shows pretty logically that many major academic centers use far too many physician resources. In other words we could provide equally good (or probably better) care while using many many fewer physician “inputs”. Hence overall we need fewer physicians, more efficiently used.
Of course any English surgeon, whose workloads and consequently surgical speed massively exceed those of their American counterparts, could have told you that. And my father frequently did every time he came back from a “fact-finding” trip over here. And when Goodman et al invoke the most famous name in American medicine, it’s pretty hard to argue with their conclusions:
"We have benchmarks. We have academic medical centers which are highly successful in terms of the care they provide, and we need to start looking to those places as our examples," Goodman said. "We need to study them and understand them and emulate them. The Mayo Clinic has been studied very extensively and is fairly well-understood," he continued. "We should be at a point where we can emulate some of those systems."
Mayo of course has fantastic outcomes at relatively low cost. In this study it used 8.9 physician full-time equivalents per 1,000 patients in the six months before death, while at the other end of the spectrum New York University Medical Center had 28.3. Of course the system-wide implications of all of the Dartmouth research are too awful for the medical establishment to contemplate, because they in the end mean 20 of the 28.3 doctors at NYU going away – and there are enough cab drivers in New York City as it is. And it’s not just New York city doctors that suffer when you extrapolate:
Applying the Rochester standard to the nation’s elderly, the United States has an excess of physician input; it needs 30,163 fewer FTE inputs than were allocated in 2000. Indeed, the current rate of supply growth along with excess capacity is sufficient to accommodate the 56 percent increase (in the number of elderly-MH add) predicted for 2020, with 49,917 physicians to spare.
All this research of course reminds organized medicine, and the industries that feed off its members prescribing more and more technology without caring about the cost, of something Lenin said back in 1923 about “Better fewer but better”. And you know how the American medical establishment hates them commies. On the other hand, it also invites memories similar to what Maggie Thatcher did to the British steel-workers in 1980 — she basically fired 70% of the workforce, but the amount of steel produced stayed the same. Are they going to call Maggie a commie? I think not, but you may have noticed lots of major industries taking the same approach.
So this research will stay ignored. We spend too much on high-tech medicine, we have too many specialists doing too many heroic procedures, and everyone’s very happy about that. Until that is that we notice that we have a health care system that does a shitty job of basic primary care, doesn’t cover 45 million people and costs way too much.
But if word somehow sneaks out that the two sides of that equation might per chance be related, then the pillars of the medical establishment might choose to move to other tactics. And perhaps the Dartmouth crowd might find themselves wearing concrete boots and hanging with Jimmy Hoffa instead.
CODA: And in a quick reminder that doctors are doctors whatever their
passport cover says, this article explains how spending more on health care in
Canada has not
shortened waiting times
In the five years up to 2002-03, the number of angioplasties (to open
arteries) and bypass surgeries increased 51 per cent, the number of joint
replacements rose 30 per cent, and cataract surgeries 32 per cent. But demand
for care seems to have increased just as much, and it’s not just because the
population is aging. "We’ve got way more activity beyond what the demographics
would dictate," said CIHI Chairman Graham Scott:More research is needed
to understand the phenomenon, he said but new technology is probably a factor.
If there are new tools available, such as MRIs, doctors are likely to use them.
If techniques for a certain kind of surgery improve, the procedure will become
Duh! They don’t need more research. When the NHS was introduced in
the UK in 1948, the politicians thought that demand would fall after the initial
rush from those who hadn’t had coverage before wound down. But it didn’t. 50
years of data tells us that in health care supply creates its own demand, and
the way to deal with that is to restrict supply.