The Cost of Health Care : Are Doctors Complicit?

Posted: June 16, 2009 by Doc in Medicine
Tags: ,
photo by Phillip Toledano from the New Yorker

photo by Phillip Toledano from the New Yorker

from New York Times Editorial June 13, 2009

Doctors and the Cost of Care

Published: June 13, 2009

As the debate over health care reform unfolds, policy makers and the public need to focus more attention on doctors and the huge role they play in determining the cost of medical care — costs that are rising relentlessly.

Doctors largely decide what medical or surgical treatments are needed, whether it will be delivered in a hospital, what tests will be performed, and what drugs will be prescribed or medical devices implanted.

There is disturbing evidence that many do a lot more than is medically useful — and often reap financial benefits from over-treating their patients. No doubt a vast majority of doctors strive to do the best for their patients. But many are influenced by fee-for-service financial incentives and some are unabashed profiteers.

All Americans are affected. Those with insurance are struggling to pay ever higher premiums, as are their employers. If the government is going to help subsidize coverage for the millions of uninsured, it will need to find significant savings in Medicare spending, at least some of which should come from reducing over-treatment. In the long run, if doctors can’t be induced to rein themselves in, there is little hope of lasting reform….

A glaring example of profligate physician behavior was described by Atul Gawande in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker. (His article has become must reading at the White House.)

None of the usual rationalizations put forth by doctors held up. The population, though poor, is not sicker than average; the quality of care people get is not superior. Malpractice suits have practically disappeared due to a tough state malpractice law, leaving no rationale for defensive medicine. The reason for McAllen’s soaring costs, some doctors finally admitted, is over-treatment. Doctors perform extra tests, surgeries and other procedures to increase their incomes….

Dr. Gawande’s reporting tracks pioneering studies by researchers at Dartmouth into the reasons for large regional and institutional variations in Medicare costs. Why should medical care in Miami or McAllen be far more expensive than in San Francisco? Why should care provided at the U.C.L.A. medical center be far more costly than care at the renowned Mayo Clinic?

When President Obama speaks at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association on Monday he will need all of his persuasive powers to bring doctors into the campaign for health care reform. Doctors have been complicit in driving up health care costs. They need to become part of the solution.

The Cost Conundrum by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker

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