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Comparative Effectiveness vs. Cost Effectiveness Research

Posted Mar 11 2010 7:56am

Comparative Effectiveness has been a hot topic in health services research. According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine , “the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 authorizes the expenditure of $1.1 billion to conduct research comparing ‘clinical outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of items, services, and procedures that are used to prevent, diagnose, or treat diseases, disorders, and other health conditions.’”

Comparative effectiveness compares how effective various medical treatments improve health outcomes.  This sounds like the course we want to take.  Most policymakers laud the health benefits of comparative effectiveness research, but some people claim that comparative effectiveness research can also save cost.

This is most easily seen in the case where a treatment is completely ineffective.  If research can prove a treatment is ineffective, then insurers could save a lot of money by not covering this type of treatment.  This is especially true if the treatment is expensive.

However, comparative effectiveness treatment could also increase cost.  Assume that there are two treatment currently in use: Treatment A and Treatment B.  Let us say that treatment A costs $1,000 and has a 90% cure rate and Treatment B costs $10,000 and has a 95% cure rate.  According to comparative effectiveness research, we should always use Treatment B.  Yet this would significantly increase costs.

Most health economists argue that cost effectiveness research is provides a better way to improve health and decrease cost.  In the example above, should we cover Treatment B?  The answer is likely yes if this is a very serious disease (e.g., cancer) but likely not if the disease is less serious (e.g., the common cold).  Some readers may believe insurers should always cover Treatment B no matter what.  However, would you be willing to pay increased premiums that would occur if treatment B were covered?  Would you feel the same way if Treatment B cost $100,000?  or $10 million?  What if the cure rate was only 90.1%?

At some point, there must be a trade-off between cost and benefit.  Admittedly, these are very difficult decisions in practice, but because there are limited healthcare resources, we must ration care.  Yes, I said it, we must ration care.  I’ve said this before .  This rationing can take many forms: the scope of what your insurance company (or Medicare) will cover, waiting lines, or increased prices you must pay out of pocket for medical services.  The government wants to avoid making these tough choices because it is politically unpopular.  Politicians don’t want to be labelled  the sentator who “killed Grandma” or “instituted a death panel.”  But to truly decrease cost and improve quality, cost effectiveness rather than comparative effectiveness is the prescription we need.

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