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Is Technology a Cost Driver or a Cost Saver in Health Care?

Posted Apr 19 2010 12:00am
The following was an invited post on the Harvard Business Review at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/04/is_technology_a_cost_driver_or.html

Pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical-device and equipment companies have been extremely effective at producing innovations that have created major benefits for medical care. But the cost of new patented drugs and devices (pacemakers, defibrillators, stents, ventricular assist devices, insulin pumps, laparoscopic surgical instruments, etc.) are high. As a result, many argue that these advances are driving up the costs of health care. This is a distorted view.
In many cases, the cause of rising health-care costs are not the technologies per se; it is a flawed payment system.
Here is an example.
Stomach ulcers are common, mostly caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. Discovered about 30 years ago, it lives in the stomach with all of its acid and invades the wall of the stomach. Now we can cure ulcers with antibiotics. A common therapy is clarithromycin and amoxicillin combined with a proton pump inhibitor (i.e., acid suppressor) like Prilosec, Nexium, Protonix, or Prevacid. It is essential to take the three drugs twice a day without fail for 14 days; anything less and the cure rate goes down substantially.
So the makers of Prevacid have come out with a nicely designed package called Prevpac, which contains the two antibiotics and the proton pump inhibitor and clearly labels the morning and evening doses. Frankly, it is a good idea. It cost about $350 at the pharmacy. Not an unreasonable price to pay to eliminate a disease that in the past had been chronic and impossible to cure, a disease that often reduced quality of life and frequently necessitated surgery, right?
Here's the catch: Until recently, Prevacid, one of the drugs in the Prevpac package, was on patent and its price was very high. If one bought the three drugs individually, the price was about $250. (Go figure.) And if one substituted Prilosec (about $30 over the counter) for the Prevacid along with the clarithromycin and amoxicillin, it would bring the price down to under $100. Multiply this by the number of individuals who are found to have stomach ulcerations caused by H. Pylori and you would save some big money nationally.
But that is not the way it works. Your insurance probably has a $15 deductible. So you only pay $15 of the $350, a good bargain for you. If you go the route of buying the three drugs separately for $250, you have to pay $45 ($15 X 3). And if you opt for the Prilosec substitution, the price to you is $60 ($15 X 2 plus $30.)
The point is that our insurance system is full of perverse incentives. So you will choose the Prevpac or your doctor will do so for you to help you save some money. It would be much better if we paid, say, the first $1,000 of our medical bills out of pocket each year and then had insurance kick in. Insurance would be much cheaper and we would become aware of the cost implications, ask our doctor for assistance, and go with the cheaper yet equally effective approach.
The U.S. payment system also impedes the adoption of innovative technologies that could reduce the cost of health care.
For example, distance medicine like telemedicine, teleconsults, telediagnosis, and simple e-mails can reduce the need for visiting the doctor's office and emergency rooms and can prevent unnecessary hospitalizations. These all will obviously reduce overall costs, but currently there is no reimbursement for telemedicine, teleconsults, and the time it takes for physicians to do e-mails. Similarly, there is no reimbursement for tele-diagnostic devices such as the electronic home scale that reports daily weight to the physician's office.
Reimbursement will be necessary if these valuable, cost-saving techniques are to become widely utilized. Or, if you had a high deductible policy, you would save real money by e-mailing your doctor and paying a minimal fee rather than coming into the office.

We can also harness technologies that reduce expenditures by improving safety and quality. Prescribing drugs via e-mail in the office or via the hospital computer (known as computer physician order entry or CPOE) can eliminate illegible handwriting, prevent prescribing to someone who is allergic to a drug, avoid adverse drug interactions, and assist the physician in prescribing the correct dose, number of doses per day, and route of administration (e.g., oral, intravenous, intramuscular injection, rectal, etc).
Other important technologies that can help reduce costs are simulators, robots, and identification devices. Indeed, simulation will profoundly impact the safety and quality of operative procedures, cardiac catheterization, colonoscopy, and many other procedures and, in turn, drastically affect cost management. It can shorten the time it takes to become proficient thereby reducing training time and costs.
These are but a few of the ways technology can actually lead to lower costs.
Questions we need to consider are:
How can we maximize the value of technologies to reduce costs while improving quality and safety?
How can we advance the needed evidence to assure that we only select truly useful technologies?
How can we stimulate physicians to only recommend cost-effective drugs or devices for their patients?
How can we encourage individuals to select high-deductible health plans and then take an active role in making medical decisions?
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