An Ounce of Prevention Costs A Pound of Cure

DrRich | April 6th, 2010 - 9:37 am

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As DrRich has noted many times over the years, “preventive healthcare services” cost the healthcare system far more money than they can ever save, and for this reason, any healthcare system engaged in covert rationing is going to have to find a way to stifle these preventive services.

Now, dear reader, before you go away angry, DrRich understands that some preventive measures are indeed very cost-effective. In fact, DrRich will now engage in a bit of cost-effective preventive healthcare: Don’t smoke. Don’t eat so damned much. And get some exercise.

There. DrRich has just successfully administered pretty much all of the truly cost-effective preventive measures known to modern medicine. (And it’s only cost-effective because the advice was free.)

All the other preventive stuff we do in medicine tends to bend the cost curve in the wrong direction.

Reasons that preventive healthcare services increase the cost of healthcare include: a) The preventive measure itself costs money. b) The preventive measure may not be effective. c) Many “preventive healthcare services” consist of some kind of screening test for “early detection,” and these screening tests almost always produce more false positive results than true positive results – leading to the need for more definitive, more expensive, and often invasive confirmatory tests. d) “Early detection” of any medical condition often detects “occult” disease, that may or may not have become manifest if it had remained undetected. e) Treating the diagnosed – and often occult – medical condition is often very expensive, produces complications, and/or is ineffective. f) Successfully preventing the target medical condition may give patients more time to consume healthcare resources for all their other medical conditions.

Please note that DrRich is not arguing here that preventive services are useless or undesirable. Often they are quite useful and very desirable. Rather, he is arguing that the healthcare system will spend more money by offering these preventive services than if it did not offer them.

This fact ought to prove embarrassing to our leaders, who have spent the last few years assuring us otherwise. Indeed, they have doggedly insisted, not only are preventive healthcare services cost-effective, but also it is precisely because of such preventive services (delivered in the remarkably efficient manner which will be achieved by our new healthcare system) that we will enjoy tremendous cost savings over the next decades.

Like Nancy Pelosi says, it’s all about “prevention, prevention, prevention.”

And having taken this bold and very public stance on prevention, our leaders are going to have to walk very gingerly (now that they have finally been successful in giving us the gift of healthcare reform), as they seek ways of cutting back on those selfsame preventive services.

They know this, of course, and have taken steps to provide themselves with the tools they will need to accomplish this feat. Their chief tool, based on what DrRich can find in the new healthcare law, is our old friend, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Readers may remember that it was the USPSTF that released the controversial new “recommendations” on breast cancer screening last fall. Readers will also recall that the USPSTF’s new recommendation, that women under 50 no longer need screening mammograms, proved quite shocking to many women – women who had been urged for over a decade by various cancer societies, by the government, and by their doctors to get regular mammograms beginning at age 40, because the early detection of breast cancer was the best way not to die from breast cancer. Indeed (readers will again recall), the outcry was so great that Secretary Sebelius quickly issued a statement reminding us that the recommendations of the USPSTF were merely that – non-binding recommendations – and that women should continue getting their screening mammograms as they and their doctors thought best.

DrRich wondered at that time whether Secretary Sebelius (who was simultaneously urging all of us to support the healthcare reform bills which were then making their way through the House and Senate) actually knew that both of those bills contained language making the recommendations of the USPSTF legally (and retrospectively) binding.

In any case, DrRich wishes to take this opportunity to remind his readers that the healthcare reform which is now the law of the land indeed makes the USPSTF the arbiter of which preventive services are to be covered by private insurers (Section 2713), by Medicare (Section 4105), and by Medicaid (Section 4106). To be sure, presumably to bail out Ms. Sebelius, new language was added (Section 2713) to say that the recent recommendations on mammography do not apply, at least not for private insurance plans. (Similar language, however, does not appear in the Medicare or Medicaid sections [4105 and 4106], so patients covered by these programs may indeed be subject to the new mammography recommendations .) New mammography recommendations aside, for the rest of the preventive healthcare services that exist in the universe, only those that have achieved a grade of A or B by the USPSTF will be covered.

Now that the USPSTF has been officially converted from a panel that simply makes recommendations which doctors and insurance companies can take or leave alone, into a panel that determines definitively what is covered and what is not – and indeed, into the chief tool by which our leaders will seek ways to withhold expensive preventive services – DrRich would like to very briefly restate his objections to the USPSTF’s recent mammography rulings.

In a word, DrRich’s problem with the USPSTF’s revised mammogram recommendations has nothing whatever to do with whether mammography is really useful or not, but rather, with the methodologies the panel used to make those recommendations. For, if those methodologies are deemed legitimate, unfortunate precedents will have been set. Specifically, by analyzing the USPSTF’s own justifications for making its new mammogram recommendations, it is possible to derive at least four new “rules” under which the panel can operate in the future.

1) The USPSTF now recommends that breast cancer screening no longer be done for women under age 50. But by the panel’s own words, screening mammography in women in the 40 – 49 age group appears as effective at reducing mortality as it is in women 50 and older, and the panel indicates this fact several times within its own document. And as nearly as DrRich can tell, the panel’s only concrete rationale for dropping mammography for women under 50 is that it has found “a new systematic review, which incorporates a new randomized, controlled trial that estimates the ‘number needed to invite for screening to extend one woman’s life’ as 1904 for women aged 40 to 49 years and 1339 for women aged 50 to 59 years.”

This rationale implies the following rule, Rule 1: If you have a preventive measure which is equally effective across a large population of patients, you can withhold that preventive measure from any arbitrary subgroup within that large population, as long as performing the effective measure in that arbitrary subgroup is more costly than it is for some other arbitrary subgroup.

2) In its public justification for withholding mammogram screening for women aged 40 – 49, the USPSTF did not emphasize cost savings, but rather, emphasized the fact that screening in this age group results in more false positive tests than for older age groups, and thus in more unnecessary biopsies, and the potential for more unnecessary emotional trauma. While this is true, the traditional response to such a circumstance would be for doctors to carefully review the pros and cons of screening with each woman, so as to allow the individual to decide whether the possibility of needing an unnecessary biopsy outweighs the possibility of diagnosing breast cancer while it is still curable.

But instead, the panel established Rule 2: Rather than allowing individuals to apply their own values when weighing healthcare decisions which reasonable people could decide either way, it is legitimate for the panel to make those decisions from on high for all patients; and furthermore, it is legitimate for the panel to make different decisions for different and arbitrary subgroups of patients (e.g., one decision for women 40 – 49 years of age, another decision for women over 50).

3) The USPSTF now recommends that women not be taught breast self examination (BSE). In point of fact, since most doctors stopped teaching BSE a long time ago, this recommendation will probably have little actual impact. But the panel came to this recommendation based on clinical trials conducted in backward, 3rd world healthcare systems (Russia and China), where outcomes with breast cancer have little to do with outcomes in the U.S.

Perhaps more to the point, a similar tactic was used in deciding to withhold mammogram screening for women under 50. That is, the “new randomized controlled trial” the panel invoked to justify this decision was conducted in England, where outcomes for the treatment of breast cancer are substantially – and famously – worse than they are in the U.S.

So Rule 3 is established: It is legitimate to take the results of clinical outcomes trials conducted in backward countries with poor healthcare systems, or in less backward countries which nonetheless have demonstrably inferior outcomes, and directly apply those results to coverage decisions affecting American patients who are being treated in the American healthcare system. This is like performing a careful statistical analysis of outcomes from a Pee Wee football league, then telling the New England Patriots to abandon the forward pass, because the percentages just aren’t there.

4) The USPSTF now recommends that women 75 and older not get breast cancer screening, despite the fact that (from the panel’s own words) breast cancer is the leading cause of death in this age group. The panel justifies this recommendation by noting that there are insufficient data from randomized trials in these patients, and further, that “women of this age are at much greater risk for dying of other conditions that would not be affected by breast cancer screening.”

It is, perhaps, convenient that very few randomized clinical trials assessing preventive measures have ever been conducted in elderly populations, and further, that if such trials were conducted, any actual benefit that might accrue to the subset of relatively healthy older people would be diluted by the inclusion of large numbers of less healthy elderly patients. And, while doctors usually have little problem identifying those healthy 75-year-olds who are likely to survive another 10 – 15 years, and in whom detecting early breast cancer would likely be beneficial, the large, long-term, randomized clinical trials “proving” to the satisfaction of the USPSTF that these women deserve screening will, for all practical purposes, never be done.

So, Rule #4: Preventive measures should not be offered to old people, because they’re probably going to die soon anyway.

Those who want to criticize DrRich  because they feel the USPSTF’s actual recommendations on breast cancer screening are appropriate may, of course, do so. But you will be revealing yourself as a dunderhead. For, as DrRich has just made quite plain, he is not necessarily criticizing the substance of the new recommendations, but rather, the dangerous methodologies the panel used to reach those recommendations, and the four new rules those methodologies have established. These precedents are very troublesome indeed – especially now that we’re no longer dealing with the quaint USPSTF of old. The new USPSTF has acquired broad new powers, and is no longer making mere “recommendations,” but rather, definitive coverage decisions which will directly affect all of us.

And this, it appears, will be the primary means by which our leaders will get out of providing us with all those robust preventive healthcare services they always insisted they were dying to implement.

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