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How Sprained Ankles Can Lead To Cancer Drug Rationing

New York Times blogger Tara Parker Pope describes how her daughter was recently “the victim” of excessive medical investigation. Apparently, the little girl twisted her ankle at dance camp and experienced a slower than normal recovery. Four weeks out from the sprain, Tara sought the help of a specialist rather than returning to her pediatrician. The resulting MRI led to blood testing, which led to more testing, and more specialist input, etc. until the costs had spiraled out of control – not that Tara cared much because (as she admits) “I had lost track because it was all covered by insurance.”

Instead of any twinge of guilt on the part of Ms. Pope for having single-handedly called in the cavalry for an ankle sprain, she concluded that her daughter was a victim of medical over-investigation. But what would any physician do in the face of a concerned pseudo-celebrity parent (with a huge platform from which to complain about her medical treatment)? The doctor would leave no stone unturned, so as to protect herself from accusations of “missing a diagnosis” or being insufficiently concerned about the ankle sprain.

The responses to Ms. Pope’s personal “horror story” about over-treatment (and the waste of billions of dollars inherent in the US medical system) were amusing. One commenter writes, “Why not think of the unnecessary $210 billion as a fiscal ‘stimulus?’ Makes as much sense as any other program in the Age of Obama/Krugman.” And another, “[Of course there's over-treatment] because the federal government subsidizes it! Medicaid, Medicare, and third party private insurance all promote the use of wasteful health care spending. And Obamacare will put that process on steroids.”

Whether or not you agree that socialized medicine reduces healthcare costs, it seems to me that we all have a responsibility not to over-utilize medical resources so that they will still be there when we really need them. Over-investigating every pediatric ankle sprain will simply drain our collective resources, ultimately resulting in further healthcare rationing. New York Times writer Peter Singer has argued that rationing is inevitable and decisions about cancer drug treatment will become the purview of US government agencies as time goes on. I’m pretty sure he’s right.

That being the case, why spur on rationing? Ms. Pope’s victim mentality demonstrates her lack of insight into the true causes of rising healthcare costs – one of which is patient demand. Ms. Pope herself is contributing to the healthcare waste she despises by requesting excessive testing in an environment where physicians are afraid to say no due to legal pressures (or a NYT writer’s bully pulpit). Demand drives costs, and there is a finite limit on our resources. Personal responsibility must play a role in healthcare utilization, just as efforts to protect our environment and scarce resources require participation by individuals. Ultimately, one child’s ankle investigation comes at the price of another patient’s cancer treatment.

Was it the physicians’ responsibility to put the brakes on her daughter’s over-testing? Maybe, but I’d prefer to live in a world where patients can invoke additional testing when their personal judgment suggests that it’s important. Ms. Pope knew better, but requested the additional testing because her insurance paid for it. Free care leads to more care – especially more unnecessary care. Ms. Pope’s daughter was not a victim of over-testing, but a beneficiary of that luxury that may soon evaporate.

We can create a healthcare system where no ankle gets more than a physical exam and ibuprofen (so we can forcibly prevent over-utilization), or we can teach people to use healthcare resources responsibly. Unfortunately, that will require that patients have a little more financial skin in the game – as Ms. Pope has demonstrated. The alternative, a distant oversight body regulating what you can and can’t have access to in healthcare, is where we’ll probably end up. Some day in the future Ms. Pope will recall the day when she was able to get unlimited medical investigations for her daughter without question or cost, and she’ll marvel at how that freedom has been lost. By that time, I suppose, I’ll be one of those people who is being denied cancer treatment by my government.

Medicare Ramps Up Rationing Of Cardiac And Orthopedic Care

With the announcement that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will begin auditing 100% of expensive cardiovascular and orthopedic procedures in certain states earlier this week, we see their final transformation from the beneficent health care funding bosom for seniors to health care rationer:

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services will require pre-payment audits on hospital stays for cardiac care, joint replacements and spinal fusion procedures, according to the American College of Cardiology in a letter to members. Shares in both industries fell with Tenet Healthcare Corp., the Dallas- based hospital operator, plunging 11 percent to $4.18, the most among Standard & Poor’s 500 stocks. Medtronic Inc., the largest U.S. maker of heart devices, dropped 6 percent to $34.61.

The program means hospitals won’t receive payment for stays that involve cardiac care or orthopedic treatment until auditors have examined the patient records and confirmed that the care was appropriate, Jerold Saef, the reimbursement chair for the Florida chapter of the American College of Cardiology, wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to members. The review process is expected to take 30 days to 60 days, beginning January 1, Saef said.

This is not at all unexpected. In fact, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

Reducing Health Care Spending: When Rationing Resources Goes Too Far

A sure-to-be controversial article appears in the Chicago Tribune earlier this asking the sensitive question of ‘Health care at any age, any cost?:’

“If you want to save all lives, you’re in trouble,” said Callahan, co-founder of The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in New York, and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, in an interview. “And if you want to save all lives at any cost, you’re really in trouble.”

Callahan and co-author Nuland, a retired professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine who wrote the best-selling “How We Die,” were both 80 when the article was published.

“We need to stop thinking of medicine as an all-out war against death, because death always wins,” said Callahan.

The article goes on the make some bold demands of doctors: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

Research Investigates A Percutaneous Option For Aortic Valve Replacement

To ensure rational and responsible dissemination of this new
technology (transcatheter aortic valve replacement [TAVR]), government,
industry and medicine will need to work in harmony.”

- David R. Holmes, Jr., MD, FACC
President, American College of Cardiology

Today, Edwards Lifesciences’ will request pre-market approval of its SAPIEN Transcatheter Heart Valve from the FDA’s Circulatory Systems Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee. And for the first time, the groundwork for our complicated new era of health care rationing will be exposed.

To win an expensive technology on behalf of patients these days, there will have to be “harmony” between doctors and their professional organizations and government regulators. If not, patients lose.

At issue is a transformative technology – another milestone forwarding medical innovation on behalf of some of our oldest and sickest patients: those with critical aortic stenosis who are too sick to undergo open heart surgery. Aortic stenosis tends to be a disease of the elderly that carries at least a 2-year 50% mortality when accompanied by a weakened heart muscle. Yet thanks to the wonders of careful engineering and some daring researchers that paired their expertise and lessons learned from a variety of disciples (cardiothoracic and peripheral vascular surgery, cardiology, and even cardiac electrophysiology), technigues and technology have combined to offer a percutaneous option for aortic valve replacement.

Everyone involved in this research (and even those who have watched from afar) knows this therapy works. Most believe in the long run, it will prove to be a safer option than open heart surgery in these patients.

But that’s about where the harmony ends. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

Limiting Any Medical Coverage May Result In Hysteria

The New York Times reports on Washington state’s efforts to “to determine which medical devices and procedures Washington will cover for state employees, Medicaid patients and injured workers, about 750,000 people in all.” An expert panel, appointed by the state, is getting national attention, writes the Times, “in part because its process is public and open. . . [and] provides a living laboratory of the complexities of applying evidence-based medicine, something that is becoming more common as a way to rein in health care costs.” The American College of Physicians, in its policy paper on Conserving Health Care Resources, similarly called for a transparent process to allocate resources based on evidence: ACP wrote:

“There should be a transparent and publicly acceptable process for making health resource allocation decisions with a focus on medical efficacy, clinical effectiveness, and need, with consideration of cost based on the best available medical evidence. The public, patients, physicians, insurers, payers, and other stakeholders should have opportunities to provide input to health resource allocation decision-making at the policy level.”

So, how is that working out in Washington? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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