While the contentious healthcare reform bill enables access to health insurance for 32 million Americans, what about costs and efficient healthcare delivery?
The often-heard criticism of the 10-year, 1 trillion healthcare reform plan is that it simply does not do enough to rein in the cost of treatments. According to a government report released in February this year, healthcare spending grew to a record of 17.3 % of the GDP in 2009, $ 134 billion more than 2008, marking the largest one-year jump in its share of the economy since the government started keeping such records half a century ago.
The question then is, how does ObamaCare plan to deal with the American view of more care is better care? Given that the new healthcare overhaul requires the government to now pick up more of the healthcare tab, can we cope with that? Moreover, how do we convince patients and providers that new procedures, tests, drugs or devices that might save or improve lives really are not always necessary or worth the exorbitant prices?
A stark example of the inefficiency in the system was brought to bear in a recent study published in JAMA about the rise in unnecessary back surgeries. Despite the growing evidence that it does not really work well for patients and increases the likelihood of life threatening conditions like heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia, complex back surgeries have increased 15-fold between 2002 and 2007. In essence, more complex procedures mean higher payments for surgeons. The misaligned financial incentives, the paucity of patient education about less invasive treatment options and the trying-and-everything mentality in medical practice even if we’re not sure it works are all part of the problem.
And it’s not just more back surgeries. More CT scans pose a problem too. A recent study demonstrated the significant overuse of such scans, projecting that 15,000 people die in a given year due to the radiation received from CT scans. Caesarean births have become more common, with little benefit to babies and significant burden to mothers. Men who would never have died from prostate cancer have been treated for it and left incontinent or impotent. Cardiac stenting and bypasses, with all their side effects, have become popular partly because people think they reduce heart attacks.
Overall, the consensus is that culture change is needed to move away from wasteful spending to more efficient healthcare. They include new making doctors more sensitive to costs of care, establishing new payment methods for doctors, more comparative- effectiveness research and penalizing hospitals for inefficiency. The hope is that the Patient-Oriented Outcomes Research institute established by the healthcare Bill, charged with setting the national agenda for the comparative- effectiveness studies, as well as providing more money and disseminating results, will bring some order into the chaos of practicing medicine.