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Politics of health care reform distort reality

Posted Nov 28 2009 10:00pm
The October 29, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contains four separate articles on health care issues which, if taken in their entirety, represent the absurdity to which the health care debates in the United States have gone.

The first article-- the best of the four-- describes how much FDA information never reaches clinicians (1). Clinicians and the public rely on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for drug and product approvals and denials, and for disseminating accurate information about drugs in their product inserts. I learned that the lengthy, often poorly written and weakly summarized debates about drugs are posted publicly at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/drugsatfda/. The authors cited glaring examples of critical information that somehow was not included in the product labels. Zometa (zoledronic acid, Novartis), used to treat hypercalcemia of malignancy, at the 8 mg dose, caused more renal toxicity and death than the 4 mg dose and was no more effective. Nonetheless, the labelling suggested using the higher dosage "in refractory cases." The product label did not mention increased mortality at the higher dose.

Lunesta (eszopiclone, Sepracor), sold 800 million dollars last year with the help of a direct to consumers marketing campaign. Yet the efficacy data, buried on page 306 of 403, shows patients slept 15 minutes earlier and 37 minutes longer than placebo, with no clinically meaningful improvement in next day alertness or functioning. Similarly, Rozerem (ramelteon), another approved sleep drug, caused younger adults to fall asleep 14 minutes earlier, and older ones 7 minutes earlier, with no improvement on subjective assessments of sleep quality.

The very next article details ways the same government can "further" improve health care. Victor Fuchs (2). advocates incremental rather than radical health care reform. The first of his four proposed reforms is to eliminate employer based health care coverage tax exemptions. The purpose is to raise 200 billion dollars in new revenues, that is taxes, to make the tax system "fairer" since the tax benefit is a regressive tax. He alleges it benefits the wealthy. (Wait a minute-- my practice employs 15 people, who have relatively low incomes and have the same insurance I have. A biller who had breast cancer last year would never have gotten treatment without our comprehensive health insurance). This would allow the creation of insurance exchanges, the second idea, that would, using Fuchs' words, be not as "generous" to "consumers" (actually, sick patients) as the private plans they replace. Supposedly, these exchanges would decrease "broker" costs.

The third, chilling suggestion of Fuchs is the appointment of an "expert" commission to devise changes to the ways Medicare reimburses providers. Fuchs cites "special interests" as blocking the "public good," as a charged way to rally the troops. Again, citing my own practice, with 50 % overhead, a 10 % payment cut equals a 20 % loss of income. Could it be, that by going after providers who have already been sucked dry, Fuchs will drive people out of practice, resulting in fewer providers, thereby raising the cost of care? Fuchs' final idea is an office for technology assessment that would be "quasi-independent." Of whom, I might ask.

The third article-- the last to be reviewed here- describes implementing evidence based medicine in Washington state (3). The state has total authority, except where prohibited by federal statute, to use evidence based methods to assess drugs, devices, surgical procedures, diagnostic tests, imaging procedures, and medical equipment. The author decries the political "pressure" wrought by patients who testify that the benefitted from a technology the state wants to eliminate. Obscenely, the same authors equate pharmaceutical direct to patient marketing with physician "autonomy" and "financial incentive" in ordering tests.
The authors note the "challenges" of this policy, citing the example that thymectomy of myasthenia gravis, used since 1912, has never undergone a rigorous trial. This author will note a few more nonevidence based treatments: penicillin for infection, appendectomy for appendicitis, and burr holes for subdural hematomas of the brain. Are these procedures necessary? Shall the government be in a position to decide? May I be so impudent to suggest satisfaction surveys be returned for all cases of physician assisted suicide?

The assumption of evidence based medicine is that care from one can be generalized to another and is equivalent to another. Evidence is important, and can help us learn how to be better doctors. But, evidence is not the be all and end all. Sometimes doctors have to take the controls from the nurse practitioners and PhD's and make decisions that are in the best interests of the patient. The reasons may not be obvious to the lay public but may be based on sound understanding of pathophysiology. Experience and judgment, absent from these vacuous bureaucratic declarations, still are what most patients seek.

1. Schwartz LM, Woloshin S. Lost in transmission: FDA drug information that never reaches clinicians. N Engl J Med 2009; 361:1717-1720.

2. Fuchs VR. Four health care reforms for 2009. N Engl. J Med 2009; 361: 1720-1722.

3. Franklin GM, Budenholzer BR. Implementing evidence based health policy in Washington State. N Engl J Med 2009; 361:1722-1725.
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