Blog | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ACP's Ethics Manual spurs debate about costs of health care

I regard myself as a spirited patient advocate. (What doctor doesn't?) When facing a patient, I try to focus entirely on the patient's interest. My advice is hopefully not tainted by the patient's insurance status or external influences. A patient without medical insurance should receive the same medical advice as a corporate CEO, although the former may reject the medical advice for financial reasons.

As Whistleblower readers know, I am a conservative practitioner of the art and science of gastroenterology. I first developed this medical world view as an intern and resident, and remained a parsimonious practitioner even after completing a gastroenterology fellowship at an institution where patients were routinely subjected to a tsunami of testing.

I don't pull the colonoscopy trigger easily or order many imaging studies. I prefer to prescribe a tincture of time instead of a test. Most patients appreciate this measured approach, although some prefer the tsunami.

I don't practice conservatively because it is cost-effective. I do so because I think it's best for patients. I think it is inarguable that our patients are over-imaged, over-treated and over-tested. I am convinced that there is more than enough wasted money in the health care system to rescue it. Reminiscent of Eisenhower's warning of a military industrial complex, we are now trying to chip away at a medical industrial complex that is an expanding hydra that takes no prisoners.

This is not to suggest that I support Obamacare as a remedy; I don't. For a fuller airing of my Obamacare opposition, I invite you to wander through the Health Care Reform Quality category on this blog. But, our health care system surely needs better health. It has inadequate access for millions of patients, conflicts of interests, misaligned incentives and quality lapses that must be addressed. I think that Obamacare aims to restrain excesses and remedy deficiencies by settling for mediocrity. I'd rather strive for excellence.

Physicians are strongly advised to practice cost-effective medicine, a practice that is often resisted by patients who interpret this as an effort to save money at their expense. Of course, the term cost-effective communicates that the mission is to save dollars and not save lives. Perhaps, the medical linguists who have concocted phrases including pay-for-performance and medical provider and pharmacy benefit manager can create a more appealing label. Here are some suggestions:
--no frills medicine,
--cheapo medicine, or
--medicine on $5 a day.

Seriously, even the hackneyed evidenced-based medicine (EBM) phrase would be a step forward. However, EBM is limited since so many clinical issues that doctors face must be addressed without any available medical evidence to guide us. Perhaps, readers have a suggestion of a better phrase than cost-effective.

Recently, the American College of Physicians issued revised guidelines in its newly published ethics manual that instructs physicians that our responsibility extends beyond the patient before us. Here's an excerpt: "Physicians have a responsibility to practice effective and efficient health care and to use health care resources responsibly."

This is an ethical game changer. According to the updated ethics manual, physicians should consider preserving health care resources for the population at large, which may conflict with our patient's interest. Now, we are told that we are ethically obligated not only to advocate for our own patient, but also for hundreds of millions of other patients.

If this becomes standard operating procedure, how will it impact the doctor-patient relationship? Will patients, who are increasingly skeptical of the medical profession, trust us? Will they suspect that we are restraining their care to serve the greater good?

I think that the merits of cost-effective medicine can be persuasively made to individual patients without having to consider society's needs. Of course, preserving medical resources and health care reform are legitimate issues. But, do they belong in the exam room?

How would patients respond to the following question?

When seeing your doctor in the office, do you expect that he is focused on:
(a) your medical interests exclusively?
(b) your medical interests exclusively on Mondays and Wednesdays?
(c) your medical interests exclusively if you are a concierge medical patient?
(d) your medical interests and society's need to save money?

Physicians are trained advocates. Remind me, who are we advocating for?

As always, your comments are most welcome.

This post by Michael Kirsch, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.