Overtreated and Underinformed: Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Evidence

Overtreated (ō’vər trēt ĭd) n.

  1. The act, manner, or method of handling or dealing with someone or something.
  2. Administration or application of remedies to a patient or for a disease or injury; medicinal or surgical management; therapy
  3. The substance or remedy so applied.

Over the holidays, I was able to read a raft of some of the latest health care pundit books. Having just finished Dr. Groopman’s book, “How Doctors Think” (commentary forthcoming), I am halfway through Shannon Brownlee’s “Overtreated”. I just got though reading a brutal chapter entitled “The Desperate Cure”. Brownlee carefully recounts, in story like fashion, the incredible rise and fall Bone Marrow Transplantation therapy for breast cancer. Once hailed as the breast cancer “cure”, she reviews the initial scientific breakthroughs, the preliminary clinical experience with the therapy, its growing popularity spurred by enthusiastic physicians who absolutely believed in its curative benefits, and the lawsuits which ultimately forced insurers to pay for the unproven therapy. Continuing on she recounts the growing uneasiness of proponents as unconvincing data began to return, and then the spectacular flameout once the randomized, controlled trial was finally published. Within months, plush cancer treatment centers would be deprived of a prized revenue stream.

 

False Hope

 

 

The finally tally: $3.4 billion dollars; 42,000 transplants; 9,000 treatment induced deaths; and no difference in outcomes over standard breast cancer treatment.

 

 

I was left with the disquieting feeling of being angry at the events, but without a clear person to be angry with:

 

o It was understandable how the physicians promoting this therapy, who were making difficult medical decisions based on the best evidence they had, might have been overly swayed with the early clinical successes and the potential pantheonic possibilities of creating a true cure for inevitable death of breast cancer. When did they know the treatment wasn’t a cure, and did the new financial paradigms they had created with highly lucrative transplant centers delay their response to the data?

 

 

o It was understandable how the desperate patients, many of them mothers of young families, would be willing to subject themselves to the horrors of transplant protocol even if there was only a sliver of hope for “cure”. What risk is worth the reward for a few more years? What care was not provided because precious resources were diverted to this exceptional expensive experiment ($100K-$500K)?

 

 

o It was understandable why payors would initially deny coverage for this “experimental” treatment; it was also understandable why they would cave to the public pressure as no one wants to fight the “bad insurance vs. soccer mom with potential cure” argument. When does a treatment pass from experimental to proven – what is required? In this case, court cases made the decision that the procedure was “proven enough” to force payment for it.

 

 

o It even understandable (I can’t believe I am saying this) why lawyers would be all over this denial cases particularly when sympathetic jurors were awarding $90M+ verdicts against the payors for denials of coverage. What lawyer wouldn’t want to litigate the David vs. Goliath case? Who couldn’t win that case in front of a jury – particularly when you have multiple scientific papers showing efficacy.

 

 

So who or where should I direct my anger? What am I angry about?

 

 

Perhaps, the way that Brownlee presents this makes me upset. Physicians are born, bred, and trained to help cure disease and illness. They want to be on the cutting edge of providing the very best care, using the latest evidence, and provide the best outcomes. However, a lot of what we do in medicine does not have enough supporting evidence one way or the other. In the face of such hard core evidence, I believe most physicians are ethical enough to change their practice. Without this evidence, however, the only thing you can do is provide the standard of care, or the medically/culturally accepted mode of therapy, or “best practice”. I am not sure why Brownlee is so surprised that medicine is partially about experimentation, iteration, and refinement. How else would we know some of the things we need to know without trying some of the things that were tried in the Bone Marrow Transplant example above?

 

 

Furthermore, all of the women voluntarily signed up for the procedure, they were explained the risk and benefits based on the latest evidence, and they were even given the opportunity to participate in trials that would definitively answer the questions ultimately answered in 1999. As long as this was done transparently, with appropriate medical consent, with appropriate explanation, the patients made a conscious decision to move forward with the treatment. The evidence, at the time, was enough of a ray of hope for them to endure the storm clouds of the therapy. The patient should have the right to make this decision.

 

 

Where it starts to get gnarly, however, is how and by whom these experiments are paid for. Turns out, that the collective pool of patients in commercial insurers footed this bill (Medicare always considered it experimental). To be candid, I don’t think this is an unreasonable source to fund the science, the treatment innovations, and the outcomes studies required to know how to delivery the best care. As an insured individual, I am actually OK paying a portion of my premium for therapies that are “unproven” so that they can get “proven” one way or another. And, as noted within the example, as soon as it was proven with data, we can and should then adjust the practice of medicine and the payment for health care services. Apparently the Congressional Budget Office feels that same as they will take on a $2/head charge in 2011 to private carriers to conduct this exact type of “comparative effectiveness” research.

 

 

So the culprit in my opinion is the data; or more appropriately, the lack thereof.

 

 

Data remains one of the key elements so often missing within healthcare. While we are on the cutting edge in so many areas, we lag sorely on basic health care research to help answer these important questions. Health 2.0 is all about next generation health care wherein data drives discovery, best practices, higher quality, and improved outcomes at lower cost. It is in the aggregation, analysis, and sharing of information that we can improve how we practice medicine. Without the tools, technology, and funding to carry out this research, we will lack the informational evidence to delivery the best health value (outcomes/price).

Perhaps the main point of Brownlee’s book is to demystify the House of Medicine and expose it for the apprenticeship it actually is. Perhaps Overtreated is really a plea to eradicate chronically Underinformed patients, providers, and payors from the ills of too much medicine without enough evidence.

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7 Comments

Filed under Health 2.0, Healthcare, Industry, Insurance, Quality, Transparency, Value

7 responses to “Overtreated and Underinformed: Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Evidence

  1. Kathleen Furtado

    I found it rather alarming that the local news in Seattle last night touted bariatric surgery as a good treatment for weight loss and diabetes. The book “The China Study” argues convincingly that a much better treatment would be dietary changes. But many corporations and industries (e.g., beef and dairy) have an interest in maintaining the status quo. What a pity that, even when we have the data, it isn’t made public.

  2. Kathleen Furtado

    I found it rather alarming that the local news in Seattle last night touted bariatric surgery as a good treatment for weight loss and diabetes. A much better treatment, as argued convincingly in the book, “The China Study,” would be dietary changes. But many corporations and industries (e.g., beef and dairy) have an interest in maintaining the status quo. What a pity that, even when we have the data, it isn’t made public.

  3. great commentary. state-of-the-art treatment means nothing if it doesn’t work.

  4. Pingback: The Number One Culprit in Modern Medicine: Guesswork « Laissez-faire Healthcare Blog

  5. Pingback: Collective Intelligence: The Network is Nirvana « Crossover Healthcare

  6. Scott wrote:
    “I am not sure why Brownlee is so surprised that medicine is partially about experimentation, iteration, and refinement. How else would we know some of the things we need to know without trying some of the things that were tried in the Bone Marrow Transplant example above?”

    I’m not surprised that medicine involves experimentation. I’m surprised that in many cases, including bone marrow transplant, physicians fail to understand that experimenting is what they are doing.

    And in the case of bone marrow transplant, they were doing it without the benefit of science, which is the only way to know if the results can be believed. If a woman survived her bone marrow transplant and then went on to live for ten more years, was that evidence that the transplant was responsible for a cure? That BMT was superior to standard treatment? Or would that individual have survived ten years with standard therapy?

    What surprises, indeed angers me about bone marrow transplant is that many physicians who knew perfectly well they should be randomizing their patients into a proper clinical trial failed to do so. Sometimes they were already convinced by the poor-quality evidence for the treatment’s efficacy, a situation that argues for better scientific training in medical school. Others didn’t randomize patients because they knew the patient would just go down the street and find another doctor to do the transplant. Which says to me they didn’t adequately explain the extremely experimental nature of the treatment.

    I don’t throw stones lightly here. Journalists were also very much at fault here. We helped proclaim bone marrow transplant as a “woman’s best hope.” We helped create the illusion that the science was in, and anybody who stood in a woman’s way was sentencing her to death. Neither was true. And in doing so, we helped create one of the great tragedies of medicine, an era that should be put in the history books as a cautionary tale, alongside frontal lobotomy.

  7. scottshreeve

    Shannon,

    Excellent points. As I mentioned in my blog, reading your book left me with a unsettling sense of anger toward a bunch of things – none of which I could put my finger on.

    The cliched phrase that “Medicine is both an Art and a Science” is probably a little more true that we would all like. The fact that we don’t have good evidence for most of what we do, coupled with the fact that medicine remains far too anectdotal and too much of an apprenticeship are further validation to the point you make: Data must drive discovery. If we don’t have evidence, what are we doing about it to get the evidence we so desparately need.

    You appropriately direct your sights on the multitude of perverse incentives within the venerated house of medicine – poor training on evaluating science, too much influence from outside sources, the fame/fortune/arrogance factors that cloud motivations when the “cure” seems so close. Fortunately, much of this is curable, but we have to stop killing patients in the meantime.

    I remain hopeful, however, that the work being produced by Shannon, Phillip Longman, Cohn Porter/Teisberg, et al has awakened both the political and populace will to do the “right thing” about our “collective” health care problem. I believe it is going to require major surgical resection of our current payment structure, an alignment of incentives to reward best practices /best outcomes based on best data.

    Thanks to Shannon for helping us not only recognize the problem of overtreatment, but in understanding the reasons why. I hope to be a part of the solution to overcoming overtreatment as part of the redefinition of next generation healthcare.

    Scott

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