Misleading managed care headlines

Last week a study hit the wires indicating that managed care plans did not have better outcomes for carotid endarterectomies (CEs), a surgical procedure ostensibly intended to reduce the risk of stroke.
Here’s the headline from UPI – “No managed care link for stroke-prevention”.
A quick read of the headline and abstract leads the reader to the conclusion that managed care is ineffective. But there’s much more to it than the headline and brief synopsis. For starters, the data was ten years old. It was from one state (NY), that is not exactly known as a hotbed of managed care. And it lumps all kinds of ‘managed care’ – from group model HMOs to PPOs under the same category.
And the study’s conclusions are muddy. In fact, there had been a good bit of research into the procedure itself (it involves cleaning out the carotid artery (the big one in the neck that bad guys are forever threatening to cut in movies), and the data used indicated “the rate of inappropriate surgery dropped substantially from 32 percent in 1981 prior to the RCTs [randomized controlled trials] to 8.6 percent in 1998/1999 after publication of the clinical trials [by AHRQ].” Clearly, medical practice had changed dramatically over that period, due primarily to publication of data indicating the procedure “reduced the risk of stroke and death compared to medication alone among carefully selected patients and surgeons.”; the research also showed many patients did not benefit from the surgery.
It wasn’t that simple. In fact, the surgery rate had dropped in the mid-eighties after publication of research indicating the procedure had high complication risks. A decade later, additional research seemed to show that CEs did benefit some patients, and the rate shot up again, only to start a gradual decline.
What happened? Generally accepted medical practice changed. Was the rate different within “managed care’ plans? No. But why would it have been?
I worked for large managed care/health plan companies during the late eighties and early nineties, with responsibilities in customer reporting and managed care product development. We all knew there were probably too many carotid endarterectomies performed, but we didn’t really know which ones were inappropriate. The indications were rather uncertain, and it did appear the procedure helped some patients. What was not clear was which patients would benefit and which would likely not. The ‘choice’ we made was to encourage/mandate/require second surgical opinions (at that time the state of the art in managed care) to ensure the patient got at least one other physician’s views on the potential risks and benefits. There wasn’t much in the way of clinical guidelines that we could use to deny the procedure outright, and the legal risks of a denial were so high that this option was never seriously considered.
Truth be told, the managed care firms I worked for had little ‘control’ over medical practice. Sure, we had contracts with physicians, but our influence was minimal – we were ‘two inches deep and a hundred miles wide’. With little ‘market share’ in any one physician’s office, it was unlikely most of ‘our’ docs would pay much attention to directives from one of our Medical Directors. We did notice that our rate of surgeries was dropping, but did not have the data to know if this was occurring across the board and thereby due to our efforts (I’m pretty sure we took credit for the decrease…) or was driven by external factors.
Contrast our very loose ‘managed care’ with the much different model exemplified by group and staff HMOs – Kaiser Permanente, Group Health of Puget Sound, HIP, etc. I don’t know what the group/staff model HMO rates were, but I’d bet they were lower than my employers’.
In retrospect, it is obvious that external factors were the reason for the decline in my employer’s number and rate of carotid endarterectomies. In retrospect.
What does this mean for you?
There’s far too much superficiality in the press, superficiality that can distort public views of managed care and the effectiveness thereof. In this case, the headline, although nominally accurate, is highly misleading.

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