Friday, September 25, 2009

Evidence That Doctors Will Not Support Healthcare Reform

While doctors are interested in covering all Americans with health insurance, universal coverage alone will not resolve the healthcare crisis. One of the major cost drivers in healthcare is due to more imaging tests, use of expensive medications, as well as more medical interventions which actually don't result in better outcomes.

This has been well described in various articles and books.

Despite our perception as physicians, it isn't necessarily defensive medicine and ordering more tests, procedures, and imaging that is driving overall healthcare costs, but is the reimbursement system. It rewards volume over quality and is particularly true for specialties that can increase volume. This is why primary care doctors have not seen increases in compensation and medical students are flocking to other specialties like dermatology, radiology, ophthalmology, among others. Primary care doctors can only increase volume by seeing more patients. Other specialties can improve compensation and volume by doing more surgeries and procedures, which in many instances are questionable if they are truly needed, effective, or even better than non-invasive treatment or watchful observation.

So it comes as no surprise that the New England Journal of Medicine's article - Physician's Beliefs and U.S. Health Care Reform - A National Survey finds doctors agree in abstract with universal coverage, but when asked to make that happen by asking themselves which expensive treatments really work and which are unnecessary that they walk away from the responsibility. Excerpts from the article:

Although physicians tend to agree in the abstract that health care resources should be distributed fairly, they may be unwilling to endorse concrete policies that expand coverage for basic health care by limiting reimbursement for costly interventions. And despite widespread discussions about using cost-effectiveness data or comparative-effectiveness research to guide clinical decisions, physicians may remain skeptical about such practices.3,4 Thus, physicians may not be willing to take on the role that the President and health policy advocates want them to play.

...surgeons, procedural specialists, and those in nonclinical specialties were all significantly less likely than primary care providers to favor reform that expands access to basic health care by reducing reimbursement for expensive drugs and procedures...

First, the President, lawmakers, and reform advocates can vigorously engage physicians in deliberations on health care reform, cognizant that most physicians see it as part of their professional responsibility. However, more controversial elements of reform, such as limiting reimbursement under Medicare (i.e., expanding the ranks of the underinsured), using cost-effectiveness data in treatment decisions, and limiting reimbursements for expensive drugs and procedures — all of which are elements of current reform proposals — may face serious opposition from segments of the medical profession.
In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it too. If we as a nation wish to expand coverage so that it is universal and everyone has health insurance, then we can't have every test, procedure, medication, and intervention that we want. However, that really isn't the right way to look at solving the problem.

The right question to ask is do we as a nation need every expensive test, procedure, medication, and intervention when others that are less costly but just as good work (comparative-effectiveness research - think Penicillin is still used for strep throat and has been around for over 60 years)? If we agree on the latter, then the problem becomes those medical specialties that benefit from more volume will see a pay cut.

When the abstract of universal coverage meets the reality of taking money away from someone's pocketbook, in this case more specialty doctors than primary care doctors, expect the discussion to become vocal and talk to elevate about rationing care rather than providing rational care. Healthcare reform does NOT require rationing.

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