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Americans overtreated by doctors health care { December 19 2007 }

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December 19, 2007
Economic Scene
No. 1 Book, and It Offers Solutions

In 1967, Jack Wennberg, a young medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, moved his family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont.

Dr. Wennberg had been chosen to run a new center based at the University of Vermont that would examine medical care in the state. With a colleague, he traveled around Vermont, visiting its 16 hospitals and collecting data on how often they did various procedures.

The results turned out to be quite odd. Vermont has one of the most homogenous populations in the country — overwhelmingly white (especially in 1967), with relatively similar levels of poverty and education statewide. Yet medical practice across the state varied enormously, for all kinds of care. In Middlebury, for instance, only 7 percent of children had their tonsils removed. In Morrisville, 70 percent did.

Dr. Wennberg and some colleagues then did a survey, interviewing 4,000 people around the state, to see whether different patterns of illness could explain the variations in medical care. They couldn’t. The children of Morrisville weren’t suffering from an epidemic of tonsillitis. Instead, they happened to live in a place where a small group of doctors — just five of them — had decided to be aggressive about removing tonsils.

But here was the stunner: Vermonters who lived in towns with more aggressive care weren’t healthier. They were just getting more health care.

Dr. Wennberg would eventually move to Dartmouth and, over the last 30 years, has done versions of his Vermont study for the entire country. Again and again, he has come up with the same broad result. And that result holds the key to health care reform — how to spend less on health care while not making the population any less healthy.

Dr. Wennberg’s story forms the backbone of “Overtreated,” by Shannon Brownlee, which is my choice for the economics book of the year. This was another very good year for economics books. Alan Greenspan wrote a best-selling memoir that was really two books, one an autobiography, the other an exposition on the virtues of the free market. Robert H. Frank and Robert Reich wrote thoughtful books about reversing the excesses of that free market. Paul Collier offered a clearheaded argument for reducing global poverty in “The Bottom Billion.”

But I’m going with Ms. Brownlee’s book because it’s the best description I have yet read of a huge economic problem that we know how to solve — but is so often misunderstood.

As you’ve doubtless heard, this country spends far more money per person on medical care than other countries and still seems to get worse results. We devote 16 percent of our gross domestic product to health care, while Canada and France, where people live longer, spend about 10 percent.

Some of this difference is unavoidable. The United States does more than its share of medical research and bears much of those costs. It also has a diverse, economically unequal population, which, in turn, leads to a diverse and complicated set of health problems.

But health care spending simply can’t continue to rise at its current pace. If it did, it would “eventually overwhelm both the federal budget and workers’ paychecks,” as Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told me. “Slowing such growth is the single most important step we can take to assure our fiscal future and lift a growing burden on workers.”

Fortunately — if that’s the right word — there is an obvious candidate for cost-cutting: all that care that brings no health benefit. It’s not hard to find examples. Scientific studies have shown that many treatments, including spinal fusion, routine episiotomies and neonatal intensive care, are overdone. These procedures often help specific subsets of patients. But for a lot of people, and “Overtreated” is full of stories, the treatments are a modern-day version of bloodletting.

“We spend between one fifth and one third of our health care dollars,” writes Ms. Brownlee, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former writer for U.S. News & World Report, “on care that does nothing to improve our health.”

Worst of all, overtreatment often causes harm, because even the safest procedures bring some risk. One study found that a group of Medicare patients admitted to high-spending hospitals were 2 to 6 percent more likely to die than a group admitted to more conservative hospitals.

Why is this happening, then?

Above all, it’s the natural outgrowth of our fee-for-service health care system. It turns doctors into pieceworkers, as Ms. Brownlee puts it, “paid for how much they do, not how well they care for their patients.” Doctors and hospitals typically depend on the volume of work for their income, and they are the gatekeepers who decide when work needs to be done. They also worry about being sued if they do too little. So they err on the side of overtreatment.

Patients play a role, too. We’re entranced by the wonders of modern medicine and fooled by our byzantine health insurance system into thinking that we’re not really paying for all those unnecessary spinal fusions.

The typical book about current affairs is better at describing problems than solutions. But there is a nice surprise at the end of “Overtreated.” (If you find yourself wishing the book had fewer anecdotes, I’d suggest you skip to the end rather than putting it down.) In plain English, Ms. Brownlee lays out an agenda for reform that is usually confined to academic journals.

It includes some steps that should be widely popular, like giving doctors incentives to explain the risks and benefits of procedures more clearly than they do now. Research has shown that patients frequently decide against marginal care when they know the true risks and benefits. Malpractice laws would also need to be changed so doctors were not sued by patients who later changed their minds.

Other solutions would be more difficult — because medical evidence is often murky, because hospitals and insurers would fight to keep their revenues and because most Americans think it’s the other guy who’s getting unnecessary treatment. These are the reasons that presidential candidates don’t focus on wasteful treatment.

But models for reform are out there. Hospitals that don’t use the fee-for-service model, like those run by the Veterans Health Administration, are already getting better results for less money. They closely track their performance — that is, the health of their patients — and motivate employees to improve it.

As I’ve written before, there is nothing wrong with devoting a large chunk of our economy to medical care. Since the 1950s, doctors have made incredible progress against diseases that were once inevitably fatal. That progress is probably the finest human achievement of the last half century.

If we weren’t wasting so much money on overtreatment, it would be a lot easier to repeat the achievement over the next half century.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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