The Disease Management Care Blog recently attended a physician meeting that keynoted a U.S. Senator. In his prepared comments, he admitted that he knew little about controlling health care costs. Unfortunately, that didn't stop him from humbly paraphrasing the testimony of a famous economist:
"Find out what works," said the expert, "and do that."
Maybe some of the physicians' silence that followed was an "aha!" reaction to the Senator's insightful nostrum. Some of it may have also been out of respect.
The DMCB is sure, however, that most of the docs in the room were quietly thinking "You must be kidding me."
Such is the approach of the mandarins leading our federal health care institutions. "Science and existing literature" says HHS Secretary Sebelius. "Effectiveness" is the mantra of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. "Improving health care" is now part and parcel of CMS.
Unfortunately, applying scientific evidence to the economics of health care delivery sounds easy enough until you get down into the weeds. For a perfect example of that, consider the common condition of painful spinal stenosis among Medicare beneficiaries. According to this JAMA article, there were over 37,000 operations in this population at a national cost of $1.65 billion.
Which begs the question: does spinal surgery "work," is "effective" and "improves health care?" Can the "science and existing literature" help us decide?
To get an idea of just how complicated the answer is, check out this Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) research review on Spinal Fusion for Treating Painful Lumbar Degenerated Discs or Joints. The conclusions from the abstract are:
Overall, limited evidence suggests that spinal fusion compared with physical therapy improves pain and function for adults undergoing fusion for low back pain due to disc degeneration. Because of insufficient reporting and variation in surgical methods used in the different studies, the incidence of adverse events (serious and minor) associated with fusion could not be determined conclusively. The evidence was insufficient to draw evidence-based conclusions for the benefits and harms of spinal fusion for patients with degenerative stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis of the lumbar spine. The evidence was also largely insufficient to draw conclusions about the benefits and harms of fusion compared with other invasive treatments or different fusion approaches or techniques.
In other words, there is some evidence that, compared to conservative treatment, surgery helps. After that, it's the stuff of caveats, statistics, evolving technique and myriad study limitations.
In fact, it's so complicated that the only way it can be applied is by helping patients understand how the science applies to their unique circumstances and values. Once the patient understands things, it's a matter of letting that patient and doctor jointly decide on the best course of action.
That approach - in contrast to U.S. Senators musing on how we need a one-size-fits-all approach to what works - is called shared decision making and it can be applied to back surgery with considerable cost savings.
"What works?" asks the Senator? The answer is for you to consider staying out of the way.