Reduce health waste through deregulation and free market principles

Emergency Physicians Monthly has an important debate between ACEP President David Seaberg and EP Monthly founder Mark Plaster about the “Choosing Wisely” program.

Choosing Wisely is being pushed by the ABIM Foundation as a way to get specialty societies to label certain tests as “unnecessary” or of questionable benefit.

I side with Dr. Seaberg in this argument.

I disagree with the concept some people advance that we need to essentially “do it to ourselves before someone else does it to us” (see the comment to Dr. Seaberg’s position). Reasoning like this is how physicians and patients have lost much of the control of the house of medicine. Read through the news and look at the emphasis on reducing the amount of “unnecessary” care.

Recently, the Washington Times published an article about how the Institute of Medicine stated that we waste $750 billion each year in health care. How could anyone disagree with reducing that which is “unnecessary”? It’s a great sound bite. But as Dr. Plaster notes in his article, the devil is in the details.

How do we define “unnecessary”? A pregnancy test in a male patient is “unnecessary.” No way to justify its use. But other tests which seem to have little clinical utility may be deemed “necessary” for non-clinical reasons. A CT scan may only infrequently show the etiology of a patient’s syncope, but some doctors may believe the CT scans are “necessary” to avoid accusations of improperly evaluating a patient or to prevent being sued for missing a rare neurologic cause of a patient’s syncope. If we want to decrease the amount of “unnecessary” testing, we need to address all of the reasons that such testing is performed. Why doesn’t Choosing Wisely change the preamble of its campaign to include: “The following tests are medically unnecessary and no type of professional or legal liability should ever be imposed upon physicians for failing to order or perform them …”?

I question whether the ties that several ABIM foundation trustees have to the Obama administration (via A Line of Sight) will affect the mission of this project.

Finally, many of the groups listing “unnecessary” testing in the Choosing Wisely campaign are making their directives at other specialties. Radiologists are telling emergency physicians not to order so many CT scans. Neurologists are telling emergency physicians not to order CT scans for migraine headaches. Unless those specialists are going to come to the emergency department, evaluate the patients, and follow their own recommendations, they have no business telling other specialties what to do. Easy to point fingers when you have no skin in the game.

We need to reduce the amount of testing performed in this country, but I still think that the best way to do so is through deregulation and free market principles. If patients want to pay for a test with little clinical validity, they should be able to do so. They should be able to have the test done ten times if they want to pay for it.

Patients should be able to make an educated decision as to whether they want a have a test performed. And physicians should function as advisers to the patients in this regard, not gatekeepers who deny testing.

In this respect, I predict that Choosing Wisely just won’t work for its intended purpose and it will likely be used as a first step toward rationing care – especially care that ends up with “normal” results.

“WhiteCoat” is an emergency physician who blogs at WhiteCoat’s Call Room at Emergency Physicians Monthly.

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