The challenges of best practices

Interesting and thought provoking article on best practices in the medial field (through the lens of behavioral economics). Best practices are much more complicated than they appear…

Health Care: Who Knows ‘Best'?
…That of the President's statement that doctors will want to engage in federally approved “best practices”? The American College of Physicians, composed of internists, agreed with the task force conclusions about mammography. The American Society of Clinical Oncology, representing oncologists, did not. I am a member of both professional organizations. What do I do? As a physician who has cared for numerous young women with breast cancer, many dying an untimely death, my bias was that the dangers of mammograms do not outweigh the reduction in mortality. Notably, the oncologists who head the breast cancer programs at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic and Utah's Intermountain Health—described by President Obama as pinnacles of quality care using guidelines—also disagreed with the task force.

Such challenges to “best practice” do not imply that doctors should stand alone against received opinion. Most physicians seek data and views on treatments from peers and, as needed, specialists, and then present information and opinion to patients who ultimately decide.

While costs were not part of the task force calculations, they prominently entered the national debate on them. Dr. Robert Truog of Boston Children's Hospital allowed that mammography saves lives, but asked if it is “cost effective.”[13] That is, should policy planners set a price on saving those young women?

Cost-effectiveness is going to be a hard sell to the American public, not only because of the great value placed on each life in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but because the federal government has devoted many hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street. To perform mammograms for all American women in their forties costs some $3 billion a year, a pittance compared to the money put into the bank rescue. The Wall Street debacle also made many Americans suspicious of “quants,” the math whizzes who developed computer models that in theory accurately assessed value in complex monetary instruments but in fact nearly brought down the worldwide financial system. When a medical statistician says that imposing a limit on mammography is a “no-brainer,” people may recall George Tenet's claim that the case for invading Iraq was a “slam-dunk.”

At the White House gathering, the President portrayed comparative effectiveness as equivalent to cost- effectiveness, noting that other countries spend half of what we do by only paying for “what works.” This contention is not supported by evidence. Theodore Marmor, a professor of health care policy at Yale, writes in Fads, Fallacies and Foolishness in Medical Care Management and Policy that movements for “quality improvement” in Britain have failed to reduce expenditures.[14] Marmor, with Jonathan Oberlander, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has written in these pages that the President has offered up rosy scenarios to avoid the harsh truth that there is no “painless cost control.”[15] Lower spending in countries like France and Germany is accounted for not by comparative effectiveness studies but by lower costs of treatment attained through their systems of medical care and by reduced medical budgets. In Europe, prescription drugs cost between 50 and 60 percent of what they do in the US, and doctor's salaries are lower. (Insurance premiums also are tightly constrained.) France and Germany have good records in health care, but in Great Britain, where costs are strictly controlled by the National Health Service, with rationing of expensive treatments, outcomes for many cancers are among the worst in Europe.[16]

The care of patients is complex, and choices about treatments involve difficult tradeoffs. That the uncertainties can be erased by mandates from experts is a misconceived panacea, a “focusing illusion.” If a bill passes, Cass Sunstein will be central in drawing up the regulations that carry out its principles. Let's hope his thinking prevails.

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