“Effectiveness” is at the forefront of the health policy debate. Effectiveness is the assessment of whether any particular medical intervention actually advantages patients when prescribed in practice settings. To be considered effective, the intervention must result in a clinically meaningful improvement for an adequate percentage of patients. Furthermore, it must not result in a clinically important adverse outcome in too many. Clearly, “effectiveness” is a value-laden construct. How is “meaningful improvement” defined and by whom? How is “important adverse outcome” defined and by whom? How are “adequate percentage” and “too many” defined and by whom?
“Cost-effectiveness” is even more value-laden. It is legislated to be off-the-table in the machinations of the Affordable Care Act for reasons that vary from fear of rationing to fear of compromising profit margins. But no one can exclude cost-effectiveness from the patient-doctor dialogue. Considerations of co-pays and deductibles often weigh heavily in the valuation of interventions.
The greatest advance in clinical medicine in my time in the practice, fast approaching 50 years, is that today patients and their doctors can assess effectiveness as collaborators. No longer does an imperious pronouncement by a physician suffice. Rather, the patient should occupy the driver’s seat with the physician as navigator. For each option in intervention, the patient asks, “Based on the available science, what is the best I can expect?”
For nearly 50 years, no prescription drug could be marketed unless the FDA was convinced that it had a tolerable benefit-to-risk ratio based on scientific studies. The bar for devices (like hip replacements) and procedures (like liposuction) is not as high, but there is usually some informative clinical science of this nature. The science is generally designed in the hope of demonstrating a favorable benefit-to-risk ration. Hence, patients and interventions are chosen to measure outcomes in the best case. However, make no mistake; neither the fact of FDA approval nor common practice is an adequate response to “What is the best I can expect?” If the best case falls short in your mind, why would you acquiesce to the intervention?