In case you missed it, a recommendation came out last month that physicians cut back on using 45 common tests and treatments. In addition, patients were advised to question doctors who recommend such things as antibiotics for mild sinusitis, CT scans for an uncomplicated headache or a repeat colonoscopy within 10 years of a normal exam.
The general idea wasn’t all that new — my colleagues and I have been questioning many of the same tests and treatments for years. What was different this time was the source of the recommendations. They came from the heart of the medical profession: the medical specialty boards and societies representing cardiologists, radiologists, gastroenterologists and other doctors. In other words, they came from the very groups that stand to benefit from doing more, not less.
Nine specialty societies contributed five recommendations each to the list (others are expected to contribute in the future). The recommendations each started with the word “don’t” — as in “don’t perform,” “don’t order,” “don’t recommend.”
Could American medicine be changing?
For years, medical organizations have been developing recommendations and guidelines focused on things doctors should do. The specialty societies have been focused on protecting the financial interests of their most profligate members and have been reluctant to acknowledge the problem of overuse. Maybe they are now owning up to the problem.
I am a physician who has been studying Medicare data throughout my professional life. But now that I’m closing in on becoming a beneficiary, I am thinking more about what I’d like my Medicare program to look like.
My Medicare would be guided by three basic principles:
It should not bankrupt our children. Let’s be clear: Medicare is rightly the central source of concern in the deficit debate. Its expenditures are totally out of control, and represent a huge income transfer to the elderly from their children. It’s a program crying out for a budget.
So let’s pick a number — more specifically, a proportion of total economic output — to cap Medicare. Now the number is 3% to 4% of GDP. We can live with that. Distribute it to geographic regions based simply on how many beneficiaries live there. Expect howls of protest: Urban areas will complain their labor costs are higher; rural areas will complain they cannot achieve the same economies of scale. And everybody will argue that their patients are sicker.
Ignore them all: Make it a block-grant program. Sure, this raises other issues, but you get the principle.
For those who view this as a tea party solution, consider this: I drive a 1999 Volvo and live in Vermont — that should tell you something.
It should not waste money on low-yield medicine. I don’t change my Volvo’s oil every 1,500 miles, even though some mechanics might argue that it would be better for its engine. Nor do I buy new tires every 10,000 miles, even though doing so would arguably make my car safer. But in Medicare (as well as the rest of U.S. medical care) such low-yield interventions are routine.