The past few months have offered encouraging signs that physicians and physician organizations are belatedly recognizing the need to take an active role in controlling health care costs by emphasizing “high-value” care and minimizing the use of low-value interventions with high costs and few clinical benefits. On the heels of a best practice guideline issued by his organization, American College of Physicians Executive VP Steven Weinberger, MD recently called for making cost-consciousness and stewardship of health resources a required general competency for graduate medical education.
In light of a recently published estimate that the top 5 overused clinical activities in primary care specialties led to $6.7 billion in wasted health spending in 2009, Dr. Weinberger’s call comes none to soon. Below is an excerpt from my post on this topic from April 13, 2010.
Several years ago, when my wife directed the third-year Family Medicine clinical clerkship at a highly ranked medical school, she developed a popular workshop on the cost of health care that presented students with scenarios of patients who were either uninsured or underinsured and challenged them to provide cost-conscious health care by selecting medications and tests that were clinically appropriate and financially affordable. Many students remarked that it was the only time during their two years of clinical rotations when they were required to consider costs in decision-making.
Now that the U.S. health reform bill is law, and over 95 percent of Americans (as opposed to today’s 84 percent) are expected to have health insurance by 2014, many physicians may be tempted to think that they can ignore the costs associated with prevention, diagnosis, and management of patients’ health conditions and just focus on doing what’s “right” for the patient, since somebody else is footing the bill. But contrary to popular opinion, that “somebody else” isn’t an insurance company or the government; ultimately, it’s the patient, in the form of higher insurance premiums (or taxes) to pay for an ever-expanding range of tests or treatments of questionable or zero benefit.
In response to Dr. Howard Brody’s challenge to the medical profession to identify lists of unnecessary tests and treatments, physicians have suggested antibiotics for colds, coronary calcium scans, PSA and thyroid tests in well patients, drugs for high blood pressure that are more expensive and offer fewer benefits than older drugs, MRIs and spinal fusions for low back pain. And if reform is to have any hope of slowing the extraordinary growth in the cost of health care in the U.S., doctors can’t keep looking to patients, hospitals, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, and insurers for solutions. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Molly Cooke argues convincingly that cost-consciousness must be systematically incorporated into medical and continuing education:
First, we should be honest about the choices that we make every day and stop hiding behind the myth that every physician should and does apply every resource in unlimited degree to every patient for even minimal potential benefit. Second, we must prepare every physician to assess not only the benefit or effectiveness of diagnostic tests, treatments, and strategies but also their value. Value can be increased through cost-conscious diagnostic and management strategies and by the engineering of better and less wasteful processes of care.
“Value” isn’t about saving money, but means getting the maximum health benefit for our enormous investments in health care. This wake-up call needs to be delivered and reinforced to students, residents, and health professionals at every level – starting today.
*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*