Since 1973, when Jack Wennberg published his first paper describing geographic variations in health care, researchers have argued about both the magnitude and the causes of variation. The argument gained greater policy relevance as U.S. health care spending reached 18 percent of GDP and as evidence mounted, largely from researchers at Dartmouth, that higher spending regions were failing to achieve better outcomes. The possibility of substantial savings not only helped to motivate reform but also raised the stakes in what had been largely an academic argument. Some began to raise questions about the Dartmouth research.
Today, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a committee report, led by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Newhouse and Provost Alan Garber, that weighs in on these issues.
The report, called for by the Affordable Care Act and entitled “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography,” deserves a careful read. The committee of 19 distinguished academics and policy experts spent several years documenting the causes and consequences of regional variations and developing solid policy recommendations on what to do about them. (Disclosure: We helped write a background study for the committee).
But for those trying to make health care better and more affordable, whether in Washington or in communities around the country, there are a few areas where the headlines are likely to gloss over important details in the report.
And we believe that the Committee risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater by appearing, through its choice of title, to turn its back on regional initiatives to improve both health and health care.
What the committee found
The report confirmed three core findings of Dartmouth’s research.
First, geographic variations in spending are substantial, pervasive and persistent over time — the variations are not just random noise. Second, adjusting for individuals’ age, sex, income, race, and health status attenuates these variations, but there’s still plenty that remain. Third, there is little or no correlation between spending and health care quality. The report also effectively identifies the puzzling empirical patterns that don’t fit conveniently into the Dartmouth framework, such as a lack of association between spending in commercial insurance and Medicare populations.