Medical Tests: "Does it work?" matters less than "Does it pay?"


In a previous post I had worried that "Comparative Effectiveness Research" was going to be the sexy new buzz word, the one a fresh generation of physicians (particularly in academia) would adopt in just the way a previous generation made "EBM" (Evidence Based Medicine) their mantra. Well, I think I am coming around.

When President Obama speaks about funding health reform, he keeps emphasizing that the money needed to achieve his goals of covering the uninsured, is already in the system:

"Two thirds of the cost would be covered by re-allocating dollars that are already in the health care system, taxpayers are already paying for it, but it's not going to stuff that's making you healthier." (From his appearance on ABC's Prescription for America).

I recently came across a great resource (thanks A.J.!), the California Technology Assessment Forum whose goal is to assess new and emerging technology. It is edifying to look at the list of tests it has assessed, pages of them, and to see how few meet its criteria for a test that improves health outcomes and is safe and effective.  And yet the tests are being done and we are collectively paying for them. 

Hats off to the President for taking on health care reform, because if you read the CTAF's list of tests that are ineffective, you are also looking at a list of device manufacturers and others who are doing very well on these procedures and tests--every one of them is going to battle him tooth and nail, primarily through their lobbyists in Congress. I sense the President is doing the right thing by taking the message to the public, to us, counting on our sense of outrage to say it is enough.

One of my former students, a brilliant physician who has gone into a rural practice where he does it all--delivers babies, takes care of children, adults, performs procedures--wrote the following to me (tongue in cheek) and I have his permission to use it: 

"I justify ordering expensive and unnecessary tests in the following way: It is clear that the current health system is unsustainable. The sooner it collapses, the sooner we can start over again, hopefully with something better. I intend to do my part to bring the system to its knees as soon as possible. (That's only funny because I'm not that way.)"

It's only funny because he truly isn't that way.

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Abraham Verghese is an author, physician and med school professor. He is the author of Cutting for Stone and his writing has appeared in many major publications. More

Abraham Verghese is a physician and writer. His third book and first novel, Cutting for Stone, was published by Knopf in 2009. He is also known for two acclaimed non-fiction works, My Own Country, which was based on his experiences working with persons living with HIV in Johnson City, Tennessee; that book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was made into a movie. He followed that with The Tennis Partner, also a New York Times notable book and a national bestseller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times , The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The Wall Street Journal as well as many medical journals. Verghese is board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and infectious diseases. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned his MFA. He currently practices and teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine where he is a tenured Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine.
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