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A Doctor’s Guilt About Healthcare Costs

Times are tight and we’re all looking to save money, be it our own or someone else’s. Many will say that when it comes to the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, doctors are responsible for part of the problem.

Doctors order too many tests, either to cover ourselves in the event of a malpractice suit, or because patients pressure us, or because we genuinely believe that the tests are necessary for patient care, but in many circumstances, a cheaper option is available. We order medications that are expensive when cheaper medications are available. And psychiatrists offer care — like psychotherapy — that could be done by clinicians who are cheaper to educate and willing to work for less money.

Here are some voices on decreasing healthcare costs:

KevinMD posts about when patients (in this case the patient is a doctor) pay cash. More on the same story directly from Jay Parkinson, here is Today I Was a Patient. The most absolutely cool thing I learned from Dr. Parkinson this morning is about a website I had never heard of before called ZocDoc, which lets people schedule online appointments with new physicians (including shrinks!) — like “OpenTable” for docs.

MovieDoc has strong opinions on allocating resources: We shrinks should not be letting patients ramble on about their romantic lives (why one psychiatrist can treat 1,000 patients if they stop that psychotherapy nonsense!) ClinkShrink, too, has had a lot to say about allocation of services, but I’ll stop now before the blog explodes.

I buy it, too. Docs should feel an obligation to care about cost containment. In recent times, this translates very simply into the fact that I feel guilty no matter what I do. I sit with a patient and I consider trying a cheaper option for medications before I try a more expensive one. But then I think: Isn’t my obligation to do my very best by this patient? Why shouldn’t my patients get the latest-and-greatest available medication when other patients do? And what’s the cutoff for how much it’s worth for relief from voices, a better mood, a good night’s sleep? How do we even begin to put dollar signs on such things?

I’ll give you a scenario:

A patient comes to me already on an anti-psychotic medication. He says it helps, but it’s unclear why it was ever started. At some point, he stops taking it, and it becomes much more clear why he ever needed it: He becomes flagrantly psychotic and completely unable to function.

I restart the medication, using the one he was on, which happens to be fairly cheap as the second generation anti-psychotics go. So all good: the med works, I know he tolerates it, and it’s the cheapest of the choices, by a lot. Oh, until he gains 20 pounds. Now what? There’s Abilify which is, oh, many times more expensive, but is less associated with weight gain. Should I try that? I hesitate because of the cost, and then I think perhaps I should try one of the older medicines, of the Haldol generation — much, much cheaper but many patients hate it.

As a field, we seem to agree that these first-generation anti-psychotics are not the way to start; The atypicals are the usual first-line treatment. Maybe this patient won’t have side effects, maybe he’ll be fine, I could “try.” But isn’t that making my patient into a guinea pig? If it were me, would I want to try a medication with many known side effects, when other medications are available? Nope. So I go back and forth between what is best for my patient and what makes sense for society. I share some of my thoughts with the patient, whose private health insurance pays for them, and he clearly wants what’s best for him, not what saves society money.

I suppose the question presumes that I know what’s best for him. And clearly, I don’t. One of my big concerns is that he had this awful recurrence of a terrible illness, and each time, it takes weeks to get better,time lost from his life. There is no guarantee that Abilify, with a more favorable side-effect profile, will be equally efficacious, or that Haldol, cheaper if you will, will also work. There is the risk of relapse with any medication change and this is why some patients tolerate medications that cause weight gain or diabetes.

And then there is the “at what cost?” for that particular symptom. A patient wants a medication for sleep — trazodone and benedryl don’t work, ClinkShrink flips when anyone prescribes Seroquel for sleep ($3/pill for 25 mg per, benzodiezepines are contraindicated, and then there’s Rozerem at $5/pill. Is a good night’s sleep worth $5 night? Of whose money? And what if the patient is on generic Ambien ($1/pill or less) but wants to take Ambien CR ($4/pill) because it helps him sleep longer? And how do you feel about Provigil, which comes in at $20 a pill for the 200mg dose?

Stepwise therapy, you say — where a patient must try cheaper medications before he is allowed access to the more expensive ones? And who determines efficacy? And how do we deal with the hassles of pre-authorization? Maybe we should decide that certain medicines are so expensive that they shouldn’t be offered to anyone?

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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