Anyone who has read my work knows that articles like the one written in the New York Times on Sunday by Elisabeth Rosenthal will immediately get a response out of me. If you haven’t read it, here’s the link.
Where do I start with this??? I’m going to let Ms. Rosenthal tell you about how many unnecessary colonoscopies we do. I’ll let her tell you how much more it costs here than anywhere else. I will address the anesthesia bit. Let me tell you a little story. When I was a baby anesthesiologist my hospital sent anesthesiologists “downstairs” to do anesthesia for GI procedures maybe once a week for a few hours.
This was in 2004 or so. Now we send three board certified anesthesiologists to various GI units every day all day. We do maybe 25 cases a day on average. Now, some of this is due to the aggressive expansion of the advanced GI procedures unit as well as the addition of an outside private group that was recently folded into the greater hospital system. It’s also because we’re there. It’s no accident that as soon as we committed troops to the GI battle all of a sudden everybody needed anesthesia.
The NYT article uses Dierdre Yapalater as an example, a healthy 60-something. Putting aside the ridiculous cost for the overall procedure, she was billed $2,400 for anesthesia. But she didn’t need anesthesia. There is absolutely no reason for her to have an anesthesiologist involved for that case. None.
Anesthesia care used to be limited to very sick patients, not because they are harder to sedate (they’re actually often easier) but to monitor them closely because of their tenuous physiologic status. Now everybody is getting it. Why did she get anesthesia, why did the anesthesiologist give it, why does insurance pay for it?
Eric Topol wrote a post recently put up on THCB where he looks to a future enabled by emerging technology.
Just as the little mobile wireless devices radically transformed our day-to-day lives, so will such devices have a seismic impact on the future of health care. It’s already taking off at a pace that parallels the explosion of another unanticipated digital force — social networks.
Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed.
Now, I am the first to confess my infatuation with technology. I am also a very big believer in patient empowerment, which could be the one force strong enough to overcome the partisan politicians and corporate lobbyists resisting any positive change. But there are several problems I see with this kind of empowerment with technology.
First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place. Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money. Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible. The technology mentioned in the article is predominantly data-gathering technology, increasing the amount of information moving from patient to physician. The hope is that this will enable faster and better informed decisions, and perhaps some of it will. But I can see harm coming out of this as well.
Dr. Timothy Wilt, a member of the United States Preventive Services Task Force, stood in front of the American Urological Association audience and explained why the task force could not recommend that men undergo routine PSA screening. At most, he explained, the test had been shown to benefit one out of 1000 men. Meanwhile, the test would cause hundreds of men to experience anxiety, and scores of them to experience impotence and incontinence from unnecessary treatments.
Twenty minutes later, I stood behind the same podium and asked the audience members to raise their hands if they disagreed with the task force’s conclusion. Ninety percent expressed their skepticism. What happened in the time between Wilt’s presentation and mine reveals a great deal about why experts cannot agree whether screening tests, like the PSA in middle-age men or mammograms in 40-year-old women, bring more benefit than harm, and about what psychological forces impede our ability, as a society, to figure out what basic bundle of healthcare services all insurance companies ought to pay for.
Wilt’s presentation was a model of scientific clarity. He explained that only two randomized clinical trials were conducted with enough scientific rigor to provide useful estimates of whether the PSA test saves lives. One trial showed no benefit and the other revealed the one in 1000 number which the task force took as the best case scenario. Wilt was followed on stage by Ruth Etzioni, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Etzioni presented a statistical model suggesting that the PSA test benefited many more than one in 1000 men.
You probably want your doctor to care about people, but how much do you want her to care about all of them? That’s the question I ask when I read articles – generally by bioethicists, often respectable ones – asserting that one of the moral responsibilities of physicians is to be responsible stewards of the healthcare dollar.
This rhetoric concerns me, because I worry it may ultimately degrade the already-challenged physician-patient relationship.
The cornerstone of medicine, the most fundamental principle, in my mind, is the absolute, rock-solid belief that your doctor is your unqualified advocate and will work as hard as possible to provide you with the best medical treatment possible, as if you were a member of her own family (Dr. Marty Samuels and I originally described this as “The Uncle Marvin Test”).
To be clear: this doesn’t mean the most expensive pills – by all means prescribe or substitute an equivalent generic, when available. This doesn’t mean the most expensive diagnostic studies – it’s generally in the patient’s medical interest to avoid unnecessary procedures that usually carry some intrinsic risk and also can lead to false positive results that can in turn lead to needless anxiety — and on occasion, permanent harm. This doesn’t mean extra days in the hospital – a hospital is one of the world’s most dangerous places, and it’s often in a patient’s best interest to be discharged as soon as possible (see here if you need more convincing).