Who’s responsible for bending the health care cost curve?

The American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) and nine other professional medical societies announced that doctors should perform 45 tests and procedures less often than currently done because there is no good medical evidence that they add any value. Specifically, a xray or other imaging for low back pain in an otherwise healthy individual or an EKG as part of a routine physical, just add a lot of unnecessary cost to the health care system as a whole and don’t provide doctors or patients any meaningful information that would be helpful in improving health or arriving at the right diagnosis and treatment.

The ABIM partnered with Consumer Reports to create a new campaign called Choosing Wisely and are joined also by collaborators like employers (the National Business Group on Health, the Pacific Business Group on Health), hospital safety (the Leapfrog Group), and labor unions (SEIU).  The mission is simply to have doctors and patients deliver and receive care that is medically necessary, based on evidence, avoids harm, and minimizes duplication.

The real question is – will it work? Will doctors follow what their professional societies recommend?

Though Choosing Wisely is a laudable attempt to make medical care better quality, the truth is doctors won’t likely follow these guidelines from their medical societies. If it was that easy, we would not have this problem! Even today, it is still a challenge for the medical profession to have all doctors wash their hands correctly every patient every time, get immunized routinely against influenza, or even not to prescribe antibiotics for coughs, colds, and bronchitis due to viruses! What is more disturbing is that doing these basic interventions did not impact a doctor’s income. Some on the list of Choosing Wisely, however, will.

Take a look at the recommendations by the American Gastroenterological Association specifically around the need for repeat colonoscopy after a normal one.

Do not repeat colorectal cancer screening (by any method) for 10 years after a high-quality colonoscopy is negative in average-risk individuals.

Yet, if a doctor does fewer colonoscopies, which is the right thing to do, that also means his income will decrease. In the fee for service reimbursement system, doing fewer procedures means fewer things to bill for. As noted in a previous post, a new patient to my practice wanted a repeat colonoscopy 5 years after her prior one because it was recommended by her doctor even though she had no family history and a completely normal test!

Will patients protest if their doctors offer one of the 45 recommended tests, treatments, or procedures highlighted to be avoided? Are they ready for this new world? Perhaps according to the NY Times piece “Do Patients Want More Care or Less”? 

“People are more receptive to conversations about medical interventions having both pros and cons” says Dr. [Michael Barry, president of the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes sound medical thinking]. “Traditionally, newer and more aggressive interventions were often assumed to be better.” But there are hints of a shift, he says: “When patients are fully informed, they tend to be more conservative.”… [he] believes patients are ready to hear the message. He cites popular books like “Overtreated,” by Shannon Brownlee, and “Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health,” by H. Gilbert Welch. These are among a slew of books in recent years written by health experts on the dangers of the “more is better” attitude about health care.

Yet, we should also be skeptical about this perspective. Research has consistently shown that there is no value for an annual physical or check-up, yet how many people still have one “just to be safe?” Although there is a small number of patients who are empowered and question their doctors about the treatment plan, the fact is most patients expect their doctors to make the best choices on their behalf. If a doctor recommends an antibiotic for a sinus infection or suggests a MRI for low back pain, will a patient really say no? In general, it takes a doctor more time and energy to educate a patient on why an antibiotic or MRI isn’t necessary, how an individual’s personal experience is different than those of their friends and family who all got antibiotics and MRIs in the past, and to do so in a caring and compassionate way.

If we expect doctors or patients to bend the health care cost curve this way with more education, better communications, and encouraging patients to talk to their doctors about the appropriateness of care, we will fail.

But increasingly there is a trend I am seeing which will bend the cost curve. Patients are increasingly questioning the need for expensive imaging tests not because they want to only get the right care proven by evidence, but because they have high deductibles and copays that require hundreds of dollars.

This would be good news except now instead of having a conversation and an examination with a doctor to determine if a MRI is needed for back pain, more patients are now simply calling in and asking for a MRI. After all, isn’t talking and touching a patient and the healing aspect of a doctor patient relationship simply antiquated in a time with technology? It is now taking more time and energy to educate a patient why an office visit actually is more valuable than imaging!

If there is hope to make care more affordable and of even higher quality, then it will be because doctors have shouldered this responsibility. Our commitment won’t be the result of our professional organizations rolling out an educational component, or the media highlighting the “waste” in our system, but rather it will be questions each of us will need to answer. Is doing no harm also mean avoiding unnecessary testing? Will we do the right thing even when it is hard? If there should be some optimism, then it should be that the current and next generation of doctors will lead this change.

This spirit and responsibility is best captured by Dr. Bob Wachter, professor and chief of the division of hospital medicine. chief of the medical service at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, chair-elect for the ABIM and the “father” of the hospitalist movement, in his keynote address to the Society of Hospital Medicine.

“We need to be great team players, but we also need to be great leaders,”

“We need to embrace useful technology, but we can’t be slaves to it … improve systems of care, but welcome personal and group accountability. Strive for a balanced life but remember medicine is more a calling than a job. And think about the patients’ needs before our own. These are core and enduring values even as we move into this new era.”

“We have big targets on us and I think they are appropriate,” said Dr. Wachter. “There are others who should have targets as well, but the main target has to be us. Change is impossible if we don’t embrace change.”

In the end, it will be doctors who can bend the cost curve.

Davis Liu is a family physician who blogs at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis and is the author of The Thrifty Patient – Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy and Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely.

View 27 Comments >