June 22, 2009

IF YOU NEED A TEST TO FIND IT YOU AREN'T SICK:

The Myth of Prevention: A doctor explains why it doesn’t pay to stay well. Decoding what works, what falls short in Obama’s plans to reform health care (ABRAHAM VERGHESE, 6/20/09, WSJ)

My wife tried to tell me the other day that she had just ‘saved’ us money by buying on sale a couple of things for which we have no earthly use. She then proceeded to tote up all our ‘savings’ from said purchases and gave me a figure that represented the money we had generated, which we could now spend . . .she had me going for a minute.

I mention this because I have similar problems with the way President Obama hopes to pay for the huge and costly health reform package he has in mind that will cover all Americans; he is counting on the “savings” that will come as a result of investing in preventive care and investing in the electronic medical record among other things. It’s a dangerous and probably an incorrect projection. [...]

But if your preventive strategy is medical, if it involves us, if it consists of screening, finding medical conditions early, shaking the bushes for high cholesterols, or abnormal EKGs, markers for prostate cancer such as PSA, then more often than not you don’t save anything and you might generate more medical costs. Prevention is a good thing to do, but why equate it with saving money when it won’t? Think about this: discovering high cholesterol in a person who is feeling well, is really just discovering a risk factor and not a disease; it predicts that you have a greater chance of having a heart attack than someone with a normal cholesterol. Now you can reduce the probability of a heart attack by swallowing a statin, and it will make good sense for you personally, especially if you have other risk factors (male sex, smoking etc).. But if you are treating a population, keep in mind that you may have to treat several hundred people to prevent one heart attack. Using a statin costs about $150,000 for every year of life it saves in men, and even more in women (since their heart-attack risk is lower)—I don’t see the savings there.

Or take the coronary calcium scans or heart scan, which most authorities suggest is not a test to be done on people who have no symptoms, and which I think of as the equivalent of the miracle glow-in-the-dark minnow lure advertised on late night infommercials. It’s a money maker, without any doubt, and some institutions actually advertise on billboards or in newspapers, luring you in for this ‘cheap’ and ‘painless’ way to get a look at your coronary arteries. If you take the test and find you have no calcium on your coronaries, you have learned that . . . you have no calcium on your coronaries. If they do find calcium on your coronaries, then my friend, you have just bought yourself some major worry. You will want to know, What does this mean? Are my coronary arteries narrowed to a trickle? Am I about to die? Is it nothing? Asking such questions almost inevitably leads to more tests: a stress test, an echocardiogram, a stress echo, a cardiac catheterization, stents and even cardiac bypass operations—all because you opted for a ‘cheap’ and ‘painless’ test—if only you’d never seen that billboard.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2009 6:35 AM
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