In a post on the New York Times’ Economix blog not long ago, Princeton economics professor Uwe E. Reinhardt addresses the common characterization of the British health care system as “socialized medicine.” The label is most often used pejoratively in the United States to suggest that if anything resembling Great Britain’s National Health System (NHS) were adopted in the U.S., it would invariably deliver low-quality health care and produce poor health outcomes.
Ironically, Reinhardt notes, the U.S. already has a close cousin to the NHS within our borders. It’s the national network of VA Hospitals, clinics and skilled nursing facilities operated by our Veterans Healthcare Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. By almost every measure, the VA is recognized as delivering consistently high-quality care to its patients.
Among the evidence Reinhardt cites is an “eye-opening” (his words) 2004 RAND study from in the Annals of Internal Medicine that examined the quality of VA care, comparing the medical records of VA patients with a national sample and evaluating how effectively health care is delivered to each group (see a summary of that study).
RAND’s study, led by Dr. Steven Asch, found that the VA system delivered higher-quality care than the national sample of private hospitals on all measures except acute care (on which the two samples performed comparably). In nearly every other respect, VA patients received consistently better care across the board, including screening, diagnosis, treatment, and access to follow-up.
Doctors of my generation have experienced dramatic changes in the way we access the information we need to care for patients.
As a medical student 15 years ago, my “peripheral brain” consisted of fat textbooks sitting on office bookshelves or smaller, spiral-bound references stuffed into the bulging pockets of my lab coat. As a doctor-in-training, I replaced those bulky references with programs loaded onto PDAs. Today, smartphone apps allow health professionals at all levels to access the most up-to-date medical resources such as drug references, disease-risk calculators, and clinical guidelines—anytime, anywhere.
Lastly, apps can enable remote monitoring of high-risk patients and reduce the need for office visits. In a small study published in PLoS ONE, for example, researchers found that patients hospitalized for heart vessel blockages were able to complete “supervised” rehabilitation exercise sessions in their homes with a portable heart monitor and GPS receiver that transmitted real-time data to doctors via smartphone.
It all began when Dr. Renee Hsia of the University of California at San Francisco received a simple request from a good friend who had checked into a local hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The fairly routine procedure took place 19,368 times during 2009 in California.
After he returned home, he received a bill from the hospital for $19,000, his co-payment for the parts of the $54,000 operation that his insurance company didn’t cover. “He wanted to know if this was the usual and customary charge for a one-day stay in the hospital,” she recalled.
And thus began her research into pricing variability in the state, which was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The prices ranged from $1,529 to $182,955 with the median hospital charge of $33,611, the study showed.
The prices not only varied between hospitals, they varied within hospitals. The largest spread occurred at one hospital, which Hsia wouldn’t reveal, where the cheapest appendectomy went for $7,504 while the most expensive charged was $171,696. There were numerous hospitals where the spread was $100,000 or more.
“They had the same diagnosis, but different things could have been done,” she said. For instance, one patient could have had multiple imaging tests and robotic laparoscopy, while the other received no imaging and a regular laparoscopy. There’s no evidence to suggest one set of alternatives had better outcomes than the other.
An Archives of Internal Medicine article (Conflicts of Interest in Cardiovascular Clinical Practice Guidelines) is getting a lot of notice this month. In essence, many of the physicians who develop guideline that influence practice patterns and payment decisions have conflicts. The authors recommend only allowing those without conflicts to write the guidelines.
A year ago in Time to deal with medicine’s dirty little secrets?, I wrote about a variety of practices that are relatively well-known in the health care field but would be shocking to outsiders. Industry often takes the blame for “aggressive marketing tactics,” and no doubt some of that is deserved. But physicians are also culpable.
The open secrets include the ghostwriting of journal articles by industry sponsors, physicians and academic medical centers holding ownership stakes in companies whose products they are researching, the clinical role sometimes played by orthopedic sales reps, and perhaps the most egregious example: physicians who set guidelines having financial relationships with the companies that benefit from how those guidelines are set.
Now we have a new example, which is even more serious than usual. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article blames Eli Lilly for overzealous promotion of Xigris. According to the Boston Globe:
Eli Lilly and Co. funded medical guidelines created for the treatment of [sepsis] in an effort to boost sales of a drug with questionable benefits. The allegation was made by senior scientists at the National Institutes of Health. [They] said Lilly tried to shape the guidelines for use of the drug Xigris by sponsoring a three-pronged marketing campaign
The first two phases are by now almost standard practice in the industry:
Lilly paid a task force to spread the word that hospitals were rationing Xigris because of its cost, which forced docs “to decide who would live and who would die”
Lilly “orchestrated” the development of practice guidelines to treat sepsis that called for early use of Xigris (an example of the phenomenon I have described before)
But then Lilly allegedly took a third step, which was a little shocking even to me:
Now, Lilly is sponsoring lobbying efforts to turn the guidelines into quality standards. Hospitals that follow such quality measures receive higher payment from insurers.
What’s happening here? Basically, an influential group of doctors is being lazy and greedy, and Lilly is enabling their behavior. The doctors put their fingers in the cookie jar and Lilly keeps restocking it. The public is paying for the cookies –in the form of higher product sales and sub-optimal health care– and should get fed up!
I have no problem with companies using legal means to promote their products, even if their tactics are “aggressive.” They owe it to their shareholders to maximize return on investment. But it isn’t in their long-term interest to push things as far as the medical profession often lets them.
Industry leans on the reputations of individual physicians (aka “key opinion leaders”), medical societies (aka guideline writers), and journals to legitimize their marketing messages. It’s up to the medical profession to scrutinize industry claims and issue independent guidelines and quality standards. Sometimes these claims hold up and deserve to be propagated. Sometimes they don’t. If the docs and journals don’t do their jobs they deserve to lose credibility.
It’s hard to know the extent to which medical guidelines are already corrupted. The situation is a bit like the incident when the Chinese President’s plane was refitted. In the process of fixing up the plane someone inserted a bunch of listening devices (presumably at no extra charge). When the Chinese checked out the plane and realized it was bugged they had to rip the whole thing up. That’s something like what is going on within the major payers. They’ve stopped treating journal articles and guidelines as objective and have started doing their own analyses. But do we really want to leave health care decisions just to them?
Here’s some free advice to the different players in health care:
Industry: Feel free to market your products and services aggressively, but don’t take things too far. If you do you’ll end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. No one will trust doctors, guidelines or journals anymore
Physicians: Remember that pharma and device companies are not stupid. If they spend money supporting your research or sending you to conferences or sponsoring continuing medical education it’s because they expect to get a return on their investment. It’s awfully hard to remain objective in such instances. Your job is to adopt the best medical practices and put the patient first –sometimes that requires expensive new treatments and sometimes old, cheap standbys are better
Payers: Go ahead and challenge the objectivity of journal articles and guidelines. On the other hand, don’t pretend that low cost is always synonymous with best treatment. Expect physicians to keep you in line on that.
Patients: You need to look out for yourself. Find a good, honest physician. Take a look at who’s sponsoring the educational materials you receive. Ask your physician about alternative treatments and do some research yourself