Diagnostic tests such as CAT scans are not perfect. A test can make two errors. It can call a diseased person healthy – a false negative. This is like acquitting a person guilty of a crime. Or a test can falsely call a healthy person diseased – a false positive. This is like convicting an innocent person of a crime that she did not commit. There is a trade-off between false negatives and false positives. To achieve fewer false negatives we incur more false positives.
Physicians do not want to be wrong. Since error is possible we must choose which side to err towards. That is we must choose between two wrongness. We have chosen to reduce false negatives at the expense of false positives. Why this is so is illustrated by screening mammography for breast cancer.
A woman who has cancer which the mammogram picks up is thankful to her physician for picking up the cancer and, plausibly, saving her life.
A woman who does not have cancer and whose mammogram is normal is also thankful to her physician. The doctor does not deserve to be thanked as she played no hand in the absence of the patient’s cancer. But instead of thanking genes or the cosmic lottery, the patient thanks the doctor.
After decades of bravely keeping them at bay, health care is beginning to be overwhelmed by “fast, cheap, and out of control” new technologies, from BYOD (“bring your own device”) tablets in the operating room, to apps and dongles that turn your smart phone into a Star Trek Tricorder, to 3-D printed skulls. (No, not a souvenir of the Grateful Dead, a Harley decoration or a pastry for the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, but an actual skullcap to repair someone’s head. Take measurements from a scan, set to work in a cad-cam program, press Cmd-P and boom! There you have it: new ear-to-ear skull top, ready for implant.)
Each new category, we are told, will Revolutionize Health Care, making it orders of magnitude better and far less expensive. Yet the experience of the last three decades is that each new technology only adds complexity and expense.
So what will it be? Will some of these new technologies actually transform health care? Which ones? How can we know?
There is an answer, but it does not lie in the technologies. It lies in the economics. It lies in the reason we have so much waste in health care. We have so much waste because we get paid for it.
Yes, it’s that simple. In an insurance-supported fee-for-service system, we don’t get paid to solve problems. We get paid to do stuff that might solve a problem. The more stuff we do, and the more complex the stuff we do, the more impressive the machines we use, the more we get paid.
A Tale of a Wasteful Technology
A few presidencies back, I was at a medical conference at a resort on a hilltop near San Diego. I was invited into a trailer to see a demo of a marvellous new technology — computer-aided mammography. I had never even taken a close look at a mammogram, so I was immediately impressed with how difficult it is to pick possible tumours out of the cloudy images. The computer could show you the possibilities, easy as pie, drawing little circles around each suspicious nodule.
But, I asked, will people trust a computer to do such an important job?
Oh, the computer is just helping, I was told. All the scans will be seen by a human radiologist. The computer just makes sure the radiologist does not miss any possibilities.
I thought, Hmmm, if you have a radiologist looking at every scan anyway, why bother with the computer program? Are skilled radiologists in the habit of missing a lot of possible tumors? From the sound of it, I thought what we would get is a lot of false positives, unnecessary call-backs and biopsies, and a lot of unnecessarily worried women. After all, if the computer says something might be a tumor, now the radiologist is put in the position of proving that it isn’t.
I didn’t see any reason that this technology would catch on. I didn’t see it because the reason was not in the technology, it was in the economics.
Years later, as we are trending toward standardizing on this technology across the industry, the results of various studies have shown exactly what I suspected they would: lots of false positives, call-backs and biopsies, and not one tumor that would not have been found without the computer. Not one. At an added cost trending toward half a billion dollars per year.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the reelection of President Obama was cause for real hope among those in pursuit of the Holy Grail in medicine: higher quality at lower cost. However, with the passage of what is called the Breast Density Bill in several states, the quality cost equation seems doomed on both ends. The Affordable Care Act mandates coverage of screening mammograms, without co-pay or deductible, but the Breast Density Bill is destined to push utilization of “non-beneficial” imaging, ie imaging that does not clearly save lives, even further.
The new law, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, was signed into law this past October in California. Beginning April of next year, the bill requires facilities that perform mammograms to include a special notice, within the imaging report sent to patients, regarding the high density of breast tissue and the benefit of additional screening tests. The notice will state the following; “Because your mammogram demonstrates that you have dense breast tissue, which could hide small abnormalities, you might benefit from supplementary screening tests, depending on your individual risk factors”.
The supporters of the bill make the ethical argument that women have the right to know about how dense breast tissue can obscure mammogram visualization, and should be offered additional test such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to alleviate the doubt. To provide further support, the SOMO INSIGHT Breast Cancer Screening Study is a nationwide research effort to evaluate if automated breast ultrasound done together with routine screening mammogram is more accurate in detecting breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue. The study is funded by U-Systems, Inc.; the Silicon Valley based company responsible for the sophisticated and expensive ultrasound technology used in this study. Thus, one cannot deny the possibility of patient interest being confounded by financial interest.
The patient advocacy movement around breast cancer has been championed by several well-known non-profits, such as Susan B Komen, Are You Dense Inc. and even endorsement by the National Football League. Yet, the confusion about screening is reflected in the variability of requirements for insurance coverage between states. For example, while Texas and Mississippi require screening mammograms to be covered for all women 35 and older, Utah has no coverage requirement and several other states do not require coverage until age 40.1 Awareness of breast cancer screening is necessary, and the complexities of picking up certain irregularities certainly deserve attention. However, the patient’s “right to know” should also include the right to know about “over-diagnosis”. Continue reading…
Gun rights advocates are correct: a well armed principal might have reduced the death toll from the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut last week.
Gun carrying citizens might also have been able to take down the shooters in Aurora and Virginia Tech. To most people, after all, guns are about self-defense, not about committing crimes. As the old saying goes: “There has never been a mass shooting at a gun show.”
On the other hand, gun control advocates are correct to point out that mentally disturbed people like Adam Lanza would not be able to commit massacres if they were prevented from getting their hands on high-powered, semiautomatic weapons. They are also correct to point out that Americans have staggeringly easy access to weapons that far exceed what any sportsmanlike hunter would use during deer season.
In other words, figuring out what to do in the wake of the Connecticut massacre means recognizing the truth in both of these views. It means considering the possibility that the answer to reducing gun violence is a matter of both having more guns and less.
To understand what I mean by “both more and less,” I offer two analogies: a straightforward one about airport security, and a more unexpected one about breast cancer screening.
This month’s Narrative Matters in Health Affairs (Why I Don’t Get Mammograms) is among the best I’ve read. Author Veneta Mason is a late 50s nurse practitioner whose sister died from breast cancer. Yet she’s consciously decided not to get mammograms anymore because she doesn’t believe early detection makes successful treatment more likely or extends life. To summarize her arguments:
Cancer is horrible but metastatic breast cancer is just as treatable and deadly whether or not a patient undergoes routine screening. Even though she accepts her risk may be significantly higher due to her sister’s illness, it doesn’t matter if screening doesn’t make her treatment better or life longer
It’s important to have a primary care physician who accepts her reasoning about screening