Too Much Medical Care Is Dangerous and Expensive

A New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, focused on why McAllen, Texas has higher medical costs than just about anywhere in the country. Dr. Gawande concluded that much of the problem could be traced to the very aggressive, intervention-oriented style of medicine practiced there — all stemming from the fee-for-service payment system that rewards the doctors who practice intensive, high-cost care. His article achieved new prominence this week when President Obama told White House aides and members of Congress that after reading the article, he decided “This is what we’ve got to fix.”

The President was quoted on that by Senator Ron Wyden in an article in the New York Times by Robert Pear.

Aggressive, high-cost medicine has never been proven to make anyone healthier or live longer. Why do the McAllen doctors order so many tests and procedures? Because they make more money from our fee-for-service system. The answer is to reorganize care so that doctor don’t have a built-in conflict of interest where they prosper economically the more stuff they order. But that reorganization is easier said than done. Dr. Gawande rightly looks to models like the Mayo Clinic, where doctors are on salary. Read more about this on Dr. Bob Wachter’s health care blog.

One interesting sidelight to Dr. Gawande’s article is that he nails the old bug-a-boo of the medical industry: so-called “defensive medicine” in which doctors supposedly order lots and lots of tests not out of any perceived medical necessity but out of fear of being sued for malpractice. A group of McAllen surgeons tried this explanation out on Gawande, but he rightly pointed out to them that Texas has some of the strongest tort reform in the country, so he was skeptical.

He didn’t mention, but might have, that other states like California, which in the 1970s made it almost impossible to sue for malpractice except for the most egregious cases, have enjoyed no medical cost savings that anyone has been able to count. Health care economists have proven that what explains disparities in medical costs is high numbers of specialists in a community and correspondingly low numbers of primary care doctors.

That Congress is just now discovering the realities of medical economics, which have been published in study after study over the last three decades, is itself pretty scary.

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