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Is Higher Spending Truly Wasteful?

Craig GarthwaiteTwo weeks ago, the Kellogg School of Management was privileged to host Joe Doyle, an outstanding economist from MIT.

In a broad research portfolio, Joe has focused on the effects from differing intensity of medical treatments.

This research is shattering some long held beliefs about the relationship between health spending and outcomes.

We think that Joe’s work is not known widely enough outside of the academic community, so we are using our blog to let you know what you have been missing and, in the process, perhaps change the way you think about healthcare spending.

It is well known that the U.S. far outspends other nations on healthcare, yet the outcomes for Americans (in terms of coarse aggregate measures such as life expectancy, infant mortality, and other dimensions) are quite average.

Of course, these outcomes are not the only things that we value in health care.

A lot of our spending is on drugs and medical services that improve our quality of life and won’t show up in these aggregate outcomes. For example, more effective pain management can decrease pain and improve quality of life – often with important economic benefits.

Despite this fact, most health policy analysts have concluded that we can cut back on health spending, without harming quality on any dimension.

This is not a new idea, of course. In a famous 1978 New England Journal article, Alain Enthoven coined the term “flat of the curve medicine” to describe how the U.S. had reached the point of diminishing returns in health spending. And for nearly 30 years the Dartmouth Atlas has documented how health spending dramatically varies across communities without any apparent correlation with outcomes.

The question has always been, what health spending to cut? Garthwaite’s previous work has shown that broad regulations requiring longer hospital stays for new mothers and their babies have provided only limited benefits and that more targeted rules could save money without sacrificing quality.

Beyond some wasteful regulations, we can always point to gross examples of overspending such as the rapid proliferation of proton beam treatments. But beyond those clear examples how can one identify what is waste and what is medically necessary?

In two important papers, Joe Doyle and co-authors ask a more fundamental question – is the often cited broad variation in health spending actually wasteful at all? They find that even in healthcare, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

His work should be mandatory reading for everyone who believes that broad spending cuts will have no adverse consequences.

For those who lack the time to read these papers, we provide the “Cliff’s Notes” versions.

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