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When Is It Appropriate To Disregard Guidelines In Medical Care?

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In an article appearing last week in the American Heart Journal, investigators concluded that if American doctors would prescribe for their patients with heart failure each of the six therapies which are most strongly recommended in current heart failure guidelines, 68,000 lives per year could be saved.

The following (for the interest of the reader, and for the convenience of any attorneys who may follow DrRich’s offerings), is an ordered list of these six proven, life-saving heart failure therapies, along with the number of American lives that could be saved each year if only American doctors would stop grossly under-utilizing them in violation of published guidelines:

  • aldosterone antagonist therapy – 21,407 lives
  • beta blockers – 12,922 lives
  • implantable defibrillators (ICDs) – 12,179 lives
  • cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) – 8317 lives
  • hydralazine plus isosorbide – 6655 lives
  • ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) – 6516 lives

The authors, of course, are careful to point out that their analysis is based on statistical methods, and thus must be counted as merely estimates of the magnitude of the benefit that would actually occur should American doctors suddenly begin managing their heart failure patients appropriately. (Their presentation of these estimates to five significant figures implies a level of precision far in excess of what can be justified, and therefore must be an oversight not only by the authors, but also by the reviewers and the editors. But still, one gets the idea. A lot of preventable deaths are being left on the table.)

Several studies have reported, over and over again, that fewer than half of American patients with heart failure are receiving all the treatments available to them that have been shown to reduce symptoms and/or prolong life. Indeed, DrRich, on his patient-oriented heart disease website at About.com, has long urged patients with heart failure to familiarize themselves with all the recommended therapies for their condition, so that when they are with their doctors at least somebody in the room will bring it up.

(Such advice, DrRich reminds his readers – all of whom are likely to be patients one day – ought to be considered generalizable for all American patients with all medical conditions, in an era when doctors are being coerced to ration healthcare at the bedside by omitting mention of sundry available medical services.)

But DrRich’s purpose here is not to address those unfortunate heart failure patients whose lives are being jeopardized by their physicians’ acts of omission, but rather, is to strategize with his colleagues who treat heart failure patients as to how they should respond to this embarrassing revelation that by failing to follow published guidelines, they are killing so very many patients.

After all, only a few months ago, when another research study showed that 23% of ICDs were being implanted outside of published guidelines (even though the large majority of those “inappropriate” implants turned out to be actually indicated, but were performed within a 40-day waiting period that the guidelines specified), not only was this violation played up on the evening news and splashed across newspaper headlines, but also the Department of Justice immediately launched an investigation to determine whether it could bring criminal charges against implanting physicians. That is, failing to follow recommended guidelines to the letter is now not merely suboptimal medical practice, but also criminal behavior.

And how much worse than implanting indicated ICDs a few days earlier than the government would prefer, is behavior that causes the unnecessary deaths of 68,000 people a year? It seems to DrRich to be quite a bit worse.

So should American doctors who treat patients with heart failure be feeding their Swiss bank accounts, changing their identities, and stocking their lean-tos in the Montana backcountry?

DrRich brings good tidings – there is no need for you to overreact. The Feds cannot possibly prosecute all deviations from all clinical guidelines. Not only would that be unfeasible, it would also be counterproductive. And deviations from the heart failure guidelines are just the kind of deviations from which the Feds are inclined to look the other way.

We must remember that the primary directive of the American healthcare system, whether it is run by insurance companies or the government, is to ration healthcare covertly. Covert rationing means withholding whatever medical services you can, from whatever patients you can, whenever you think you can get away with it. If one remembers this simple rule, one can accurately predict the response of the health insurance companies or the government to any particular guideline violation.

So: When doctors implant expensive ICDs outside of the guidelines, even when the deviation is to place an indicated ICD a few days earlier than specified, it is a potentially criminal offense. Those ICDs cost a lot of money, and worse, prevent inexpensive sudden deaths, so it is clear that steps need to be taken to prevent their usage. Enforcing the guidelines to the letter therefore is imperative.

On the other hand, when deviations of guidelines result in NOT spending money (say, on drugs, ICDs, and CRT devices), those deviations will  be viewed quite differently. And when those same guideline deviations result in the premature deaths of tens of thousands of patients with chronic and expensive medical conditions (and who, had they survived for another five or 10 years, would have consumed lots and lots of extra healthcare dollars and, in most cases, Social Security payments), the last thing you would want to do is to engage in guideline-enforcement activities.

If you doubt DrRich on this point, ask yourself whether you’ve been treated to news stories over the past 10 days on how American doctors are killing 68,000 people each year by failing to follow guidelines. That story, it seems to DrRich, would be much sexier than the one that made a splash in January about ICDs being implanted too early. Yet we’ve heard next to nothing about it. These are not the kinds of guidelines violations we need to put a stop to. These guidelines violations do not fit the narrative.

Also, consider the editorial that accompanied the article in the American Heart Journal last week. It constitutes a strong apologist argument for violating the heart failure guidelines. It points out, rightly, that perhaps there were good reasons that some patients with heart failure do not receive all six of the recommended therapies, and that not all guidelines are applicable to all patients. It also points out that the number 68,000 was estimated by compounding several assumptions together, which would place large error bars around that estimate. So perhaps the guidelines deviations were not as lethal as the authors estimated. But most striking of all, the editorialist argues that it would just be too expensive to follow the guidelines for all patients with heart failure.  If ICDs were used in all patients for whom the guidelines say they should be used, for instance, this alone “would divert most of the money anticipated for all heart-failure care next year to these devices.”

The editorial is correct, and it is honest. It, at least, openly acknowledges that doctors are obligated to ration healthcare, based on costs, at the bedside, and that following these guidelines would violate the imperative to ration. Current guidelines on heart failure would cost a lot of money up front, and would result in the prolonged survival of a lot of very expensive Americans. And therefore, doctors will not be held accountable for failing to follow them.

American doctors can continue deviating from the heart failure guidelines, secure in the knowledge that their activity (or inactivity) will not capture unwanted attention from the Feds. These are not the guidelines our leaders are talking about when they assure the population that they are going to make sure that doctors are doing all the things the experts specify they should be doing.

These are those other kinds of guidelines.

If you are an American patient with any kind of medical problem whatsoever, DrRich begs you to become an expert in your medical condition. The patients with heart failure who are doing so, and who are prepared to challenge their doctors on their treatment, are among the minority who are receiving all the therapies proven to prolong their survival.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*


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