Why health reform will be so tough

From the world of workers comp comes a crystal clear picture of what’s wrong with America’s health care system, and how difficult it will be to get it right.
WorkCompCentral has a piece this morning about California’s proposal to not recommend topical analgesics – creams and ointment that are compounded at the pharmacy.
The pharmacy community doesn’t like the proposal, claiming “there’s [sic] prescriptions for these medications, patients have been getting relief, and we think that they should continue to be reimbursed for the medications that are being prescribed for them”.
Opponents of the proposed language also noted that it “conflicts with the DWC’s written policy stating that only “evidence-based, peer-reviewed research concerning the efficacy of a treatment can be the basis for recommending or not recommending a treatment.”
I’d suggest the opposite is the real issue – there is no evidence-based peer reviewed research documenting the effectiveness or efficacy of compounded medications. The pharmacists want to be paid for preparing and dispensing a medication which has not been shown to work. And they are pulling out the lobbyists and PR folks and ‘inhouse experts’ in an attempt to get California to back down.
Further. compounded medications are outside the scope of the the FDA’s authority.
About a third of US health care dollars are spent on treatments that are likely not effective. One has only to look at the history of MRIs, carotid endarterectomy, and angioplasty to identify billions of dollars that have been wasted on treatments that did not help, and may well have harmed, thousands of patients. These treatments, devices, and providers make money for their purveyors and manufacturers, dollars that they are loathe to give up.
Yet the approval process for these treatments/drugs/devices is is almost laughably low. Here’s how a UK researcher put it:

“the FDA dossier showed that the average improvement produced by drugs introduced in the 1960s was 17%, whereas with the drugs introduced in the 1990s it was 16%![emphasis added]…If one looks at the medical interventions we have for many diseases, whether they be psychiatric or neurological disorders, cancer, cardiovascular or respiratory or gastrointestinal problems, or almost any type of illness other than bacterial infections, what evidence-based medicine shows is that, as my colleague found, many of our interventions are pitifully inadequate. Our studies, although beautifully conducted, have been done on patient populations that bear only a limited relationship to those patients we actually see. The number needed to treat to achieve one success over and above that which could be achieved by placebo may be 10, 20, or even as high as 50. Thus, the trials actually give us almost no guidance as to the likely outcome of an intervention in the individual patient who sits in front of us. For many conditions, therapeutic effects are so small that neither the patient, nor the relative, nor the doctor is likely to be able to recognize any differences in the patient’s state as a result of our intervention. We pride ourselves on our large, well-conducted, immaculately analyzed trials that give significant results. But we have forgotten that we need to conduct such enormous trials only because our interventions are so minimally effective. If we were making a really large difference to the outcome, small trials would suffice and provide clearly significant results.”
That’s one side of the argument. Here’s the other.
I give you the condition known as ‘chronic lyme disease’. This tick borne ailment is pretty common in my area (central coast of Connecticut), in fact I live about twenty miles from Lyme. Walk down the main street in Madison and chances are you’ll encounter at least one person who has had recurrent Lyme disease – the mechanic, artist, college student, mom. Yet try to find a doctor who will treat chronic Lyme and you’ll find very few who will risk their reputation and medical license, as several physicians have been disciplined for just that.
The battle over chronic Lyme (and it is a battle) has been brutal, nasty, and vicious. Nay sayers claim no such disease exists, and cite research and articles in prestigious publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine as support for their opinions. Their opponents decry the poor quality and selective nature of that ‘research’, accuse the authors and study leaders of conflicts of interest, and note the successes – patients treated for chronic Lyme that get better.
Anecdotally, I know at least a half-dozen friends and neighbors who have suffered from some condition that robbed them of their energy, caused great pain, and prevented them from doing many of the things the rest of us take for granted. After extensive treatment (we’re talking over a year) with antibiotics, all have gotten better. Much better.
It is abundantly clear that medicine is an art as much as a science, and art is, as famously described, in the eye of the beholder.
And that’s one reason health reform, which must attack cost, will be so very difficult.

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