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JAMA Commentary on Consumer Driven Health Care: It's Time to Give Healthcare Consumers a Chance

Posted Jan 22 2009 5:17pm
In the latest (January 21 and not on line yet) issue of JAMA, physicians Robert Berensen (of the Urban Institute) and Christine Cassel (of the American Board of Internal Medicine) argue that consumer driven health care may not be what patients need. Briefly, they argue that this kind of approach – in which consumers have full access to information on price, quality and services and get to choose accordingly – places patients at a huge disadvantage. It also discounts the proven and long standing value of physician professionalism. According to Drs. Berensen and Cassel, the knowledge needed by the consumer is too complicated, the relationship with the health care system too asymmetric and patients are too vulnerable to making bad choices. Compared to your physician healthcare system tour-guide where your doctor can act as an advisor, fiduciary and advocate, the medical marketplace is a lousy option.

The Disease Management Care Blog doesn’t entirely buy this at several levels.

While physician professionalism is an ideal, physicians are also:

Humans who carry their own bias and agenda into their patient encounters.

Vulnerable to economic factors when framing patient options.

Even when salaried and even when in premier academic settings, may belong in organizations that are monopolistic, predatory and not acting in their patients’ interests.

Drs. Berensen and Cassel also fail to distinguish between preference sensitive and insensitive care. The former involves healthcare services that are subject to patient choice (for example, a total knee replacement for progressive osteoarthritis), while the latter involves services are not readily optional (for example, a total hip replacement following a fracture). The DMCB accepts the notion that women in labor, men with heart attacks and grandmothers with hip fractures generally cannot exercise the usual laws of economics in a medical marketplace.

However, persons with chronic illness – such as osteoarthritis, prostatism, diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease – generally do have the ability and the time to get involved in determining much of the content of their care. This includes the outcomes they want from treatment and the amount of money and effort they are willing to expend to get there. There is plenty of great commentary and reviews that show that consumerism is an untapped force in healthcare.

The DMCB has lived through decades of physician professionalism and isn’t all that impressed. While it’s a great notion, relying on its routine applicability to day-to-day medical practice, while attractive, is at best naïve and at worst the last refuge of the status quo. It's what the doctor ordered, not what patients need.

We can work on expanding and improving the profesionalism but it’s time to give the consumers a chance when it comes to health care choices for chronic illness.
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