02 June 2008

Geography & healthcare

Consumer Reports has published an article on the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care - a wonderful thing. Consumer Reports is really on a tear about healthcare, and this article provides our friends and neighbors information about a big part of what's wrong with U.S. healthcare.

Because physicians are paid on a fee-for-procedure, cost-plus basis, the incentives are to do more procedures, rather than just the right procedures. Physicians and nurses are generally ethical people, but they're just human. Add the need to pay for that MRI machine to the old lady's son insisting on "Do whatever's necessary, doc," and you end up with unnecessarily aggressive treatments - something proven out by the crazy regional differences on how many procedures patients are getting some places - without better outcomes.
Geography and health care
The amount of medical care that people get for serious illnesses varies enormously from place to place. In the last two years of life, the average patient spent 11 days in the hospital in Bend, Ore., and 35 days in Manhattan. In those same two years, patients visited the doctor an average of 34 times in Ogden, Utah, and 109 times in Los Angeles.

The Dartmouth Atlas based those findings on the Medicare claims records of millions of patients who died from (in order of prevalence) congestive heart failure, chronic pulmonary (lung) disease, cancer, dementia, coronary artery disease, chronic kidney failure, peripheral vascular (circulatory) disease, diabetes with organ damage, and severe chronic liver disease. Together those ailments account for about 90 percent of deaths of people older than 65.

Over the years, Dartmouth research has yielded some startling insights:
  • The local supply of doctors and hospitals has more influence on the amount and type of care that patients receive than their actual medical conditions have. The more medical resources a region has, the more aggressive the treatments are.
  • In the regions that deliver the most care, patients have a slightly higher death rate than patients with the same conditions treated in areas that treat less aggressively.
  • Patients treated most aggressively are no more satisfied with their care.
  • The cost differences are vast. Average Medicare spending over the last two years of life for all hospitals ranged from a high of $81,143 in Manhattan to a low of $29,116 in Dubuque, Iowa.
So the Dartmouth folks are big on best practices, as are other medical systems that keep down healthcare costs - and simultaneously maintain good access. (Note in the Consumer Reports' articles that "Patients in the high-spending, aggressive-care regions waited longer in emergency rooms and doctors' offices than patients in lower-spending regions did.")

Linda Gorman, from the libertarian Independence Institute and a commissioner on Colorado's Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform, was always vehemently against "best practices." She argued that the science was too soft, that it was subjective, that by God if a patient wants bad care then it's their right to get it - or something along those lines.

These are folks who also consider the science behind global warming to be a bunch of hooey. I don't know whether they also think the moon landing was a hoax.

Part of progress - and survival - comes from measuring cause and effects and paying attention to the answers. Dartmouth has come up with some pretty good answers here - information that's important whether we get a healthcare system or remain stuck with laissez-faire, for-profit healthcare. If we had a healthcare system, we could move more quickly and surely with this information towards more efficient and humane standards. Until that day, we'll muddle through and probably get partway there. Or not.

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