In all the attention given in the past couple of years (to say nothing of the past couple of months) to the individual mandate and its effect on health care access, other key features of PPACA, which address other aspects of the health care system, have received less attention than they deserve. Two remarkable things happened yesterday that highlight the importance of addressing health care quality.
First, newly published research suggests that each year in the U.S., more than 100,000 men undergo expensive, invasive surgeries that leave many of them impotent and/or incontinent, all without increasing their chances of survival or providing other clinical benefits.
The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of what one oncologist not involved with the study called a potentially “game-changing” experiment involving men with early-stage prostate cancer. Most new diagnoses of prostate cancer are early-stage, and about 90% of those who receive this diagnosis choose immediate treatment with surgery (or radiation). But despite the considerable financial and human costs of the surgery, it’s not clear that the surgery actually improves patients’ odds or duration of survival.
To examine that question, investigators randomly assigned 731 men either to surgical removal of the prostate or to an observation group, where the cancer was monitored but not treated unless it showed signs of progressing. After 15 years, there was no statistical difference between the two groups in terms of either overall mortality or mortality due to prostate cancer. A secondary analysis, however, suggested that surgery may benefit men with high Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) levels.
The results are complex, and an accompanying editorial argues that the sample size of 731 rendered the study insufficiently powered to draw conclusions about the comparative efficacy of surgery and watchful waiting. Notably, the investigators sought 2,000 subjects, but could only recruit 731, presumably because, in the face of a cancer diagnosis, being randomized to “watchful waiting” seems risky. But it’s precisely the point of health services research — and analogous research in other areas, including legal services, see, e.g., Greiner and Pattanayak’s RCT of Harvard legal aid offers — that what seems, based often on not much more than mere intuition (and perhaps a cognitive bias that favors action over inaction), to be the most effective option is not always so in fact.
The second remarkable thing that happened yesterday is that the House proposed to gut federal involvement in health services research, a diverse category of research of which the prostate cancer study is but one example. And this, despite the fact that, historically, health services research has received only about 1% of the budget of NIH, the largest funder of basic biomedical research. Health services research evaluates, and often compares, actual health services delivery systems and interventions (e.g., treatments, diagnostics, or screening and other preventative measures), as they are implemented in actual practice settings.
The House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies passed the spending bill for fiscal year (FY) 2013; it goes to full committee next week. Among other cuts, section 227 of the bill (see pp. 90-93) eliminates, effective October 1, 2012, the uber-wonky, but critically important, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Located within HHS, the mission of AHRQ (which had a $405 million budget in FY 2012) is to improve health care quality, safety, efficiency, and effectiveness. AHRQ is the major funder of health services research. Among many, many other studies, for instance, it helped fund the prostate cancer study discussed above. It also studies, and tries to prevent, the medical errors that kill more than 100,000 people a year. The House bill, moreover, prohibits other agencies within the subcommittee’s jurisdiction from assuming AHRQ’s duties unless they already have statutory authority to do so.
The vote to pass the bill fell along party lines, with the exception of Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sided with the Democrats in voting against the bill because he wanted even deeper cuts. And indeed, one possible explanation for the House’s decision is that cutting AHRQ is a somewhat lamentable, but ultimately wise, choice in tight economic times. After all, why spend scarce time and money studying an intervention after it has been marketed, often after having endured rigorous approval processes like those imposed by the FDA?
This thinking is short-sighted — and dangerous. Much medical practice — like surgeries — was never subjected to rigorous study before it became the standard of care. Much of medicine, in short, isn’t evidence-based. Hence the need for an active movement towards “Evidence Based Medicine.”