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Why health care costs are ballooning

Posted Aug 24 2008 9:45pm

Have you ever wondered to what degree health care is driven by a profit motive?

A doctor advises you to undergo a procedure. Is that advice motivated solely by concern for your health and welfare? Or, does the generous financial compensation peculiar to procedures bias your doctor’s decision?

The billboard on the highway advertises a hospital heart program. Is it meant to raise awareness of lifesaving services? Or, is it the same as an ad for a casino or hotel chain, a marketing tool for generating business?

At one time or another, we’ve probably all shared a suspicion that healthcare is occasionally motivated by money: over-priced prescription drugs, hospitals charging higher prices to the uninsured, the three-minute doctor’s visit for $200.

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising has brought aggressive drug sales tactics front and center to the public’s attention. “Ask your doctor about . . .” is the mantra of countless 30-second spots appearing several times an hour on national television. Direct-to-consumer drug advertising has provided the American public with a $4.5 billion reminder that there’s money to be made in the world of prescription drugs (U.S. Government Accountability Office). And there’s certainly a load of money to be made. A 2003 Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showed that, of every dollar spent on consumer drug advertising, $4.20 was recovered through increased sales (Impact of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising on Prescription Drug Spending; Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation). A $53,000 ad run three times during the Oprah Winfrey Show is money well invested for a drug manufacturer.

The knotty issue of medical errors has recently captured attention. Unintentional medical errors—-nurses administering the wrong medication, doctor misdiagnoses or amputating the wrong leg, unrecognized medication interactions—-are an estimated $29 billion headache. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, reported that up to 98,000 lives are lost every year as a result of errors in healthcare delivery.

No doubt, these are all enormous problems that plague our healthcare system.

But I am going to make the case for a much larger problem. The magnitude of this problem dwarfs that of medical errors. It’s not an issue of neglect, nor is it committed in error. It is built on intentionally committed acts , systematically conducted on a massive scale, and sustained by the participation of many. It is a plague of unprecedented proportions on the health care system. It requires the willing participation of parties at multiple levels, from lone medical practitioners, to hospitals, to multi-billion dollar medical device and drug manufacturers, even to institutions like the FDA and American Heart Association.

The problem is the bizarre situation that has evolved in health care for the heart. I specify health care for the heart, not heart disease, because actual disease is not always part of the equation. Astonishingly, much of the inflated cost of heart care is based on the feared specter of heart disease, the implied threat of heart disease, the possibility, sometimes vanishingly remote, of heart disease based on some harbinger of risk. Sometimes the disease itself is nowhere in sight.

The system thrives on a culture of fear, an open ticket to over-testing and profligate spending. Ads cleverly admonish you to “Do it for your family”. Nuclear stress testing alone generates $18 billion of costs. Yet this test is normal in 80% of people tested. Worse, the 20% of “abnormal” stress test results are not always indicative of genuine disease, they are “false positive,” and are a big part of the reason that 30% of heart catheterizations fail to show disease. “My arteries checked out okay!” relieved patients will declare―-but there may have been no reason to have pursued a costly test like catheterization in the first place. But the system makes far better sense when you understand that nuclear stress tests and heart catheterizations are the bread and butter of cardiologists and hospitals, and the ticket to more financially rewarding procedures.

This approach evolved in the 1960s, when coronary heart disease itself was impossibly difficult to diagnose until a catastrophe like heart attack declared itself. But in the 21st century, coronary heart disease is easily, inexpensively, and safely detectable, decades before heart attack risk looms over your life. Yet murky, risk-based tests like stress tests and cholesterol testing continue to dominate the practice of “heart disease detection” in real-life practice.

Make no mistake: This problem is huge. The cardiovascular health care system has mushroomed into a gargantuan profit-generating mechanism, far larger than is required to deliver essential heart care. In 2003, over $431.8 billion was spent in the U.S. on cardiovascular health care, $151.6 of this on coronary disease alone (American Heart Association, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2007 Update). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects that total health care spending will double to $3.6 trillion by 2014, consuming 18.7 percent of the nation's economy, much of the increase due to expanding cardiovascular costs.

Most tragically, the system has grown through the exploitation of trust. The faith we have in doctors, hospitals, and the institutions and people associated with healthcare has been subverted into the service of profit. Many practitioners and institutions have chosen to operate under the guise of doing good but instead capitalize on the public’s willingness to accept as fact the need for a major heart procedure and all its associated costly trappings.

Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD

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