Cutting costs under the guise of patient safety

Rationing is a very dirty word in America, evoking grim images of wartime Great Britain and, in the health care context, withholding of needed care from patients based on cost. But cut back on costs we must, and with magical thinking about the deficit becoming every more popular, we’ll have to find other ways to convince folks to do it.

Patient safety is a promising guise under which to achieve cutbacks, especially in costly areas where the dangers are real. The new radiation protection bill signed into law in California recently is a great example.

AuntMinnie recently ran a story, “Calif. governor signs medical radiation bill into law”:

The bill requires that radiation dose be recorded on the scanned image and in a patient’s health records, and that radiation overdoses be reported to patients, treating physicians, and the state Department of Public Health (DPH).

The law is clearly focused on overdoses, but once patients realize how much radiation they’re being exposed to — especially by repeated CT scans — many will start cutting back on what they request or accept. Over time, perhaps this attitude will spread to other areas of medicine such as surgical procedures and prescription drugs, where the risks are not always recognized today.

The federal government has done a great job whipping people into a sustained frenzy about airport security. All the time I hear people say they’ll put up with whatever hassles it takes at the airport in the name of security, and it almost seems the greater the hassle, the more satisfied people are to be subjected to it.

I don’t admire this approach in airport security, but if the same zeal were devoted to patient safety (with the idea of reducing health care costs) I think it could succeed.

David E. Williams is co-founder of MedPharma Partners and blogs at the Health Business Blog.

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