Image by Stuart Bradford
Tara Parker-Pope, Well columnist for the New York Times website, highlighted overtreatment as a serious problem in a blog post yesterday. The post describes several people's direct experiences with unnecessary testing and treatment, and does a good job conveying the physical, emotional, and financial harm that comes from a disorganized system prone to overtreatment.
Overtreatment is a human issue, and reducing the personal harm it causes is at least as important as controlling healthcare spending growth. But healthcare spending is a crucial political issue, so it was smart to put the post on the Times's current campaign issues channel, The Agenda. Tackling overtreatment will be a defining issue of the next few years--either because we make crucial progress toward eliminating overse and reducing total medical spending, or because the next President ignores the problem while we continue on the ruinous path of letting healthcare strangle the rest of our economy.
Given the importance of the issue, though, I wish the post had looked a little bit closer at the policy issues involved. Most importantly, the post doesn't address the causes of overtreatment, including the financial incentives faced by clinicians and hospitals, lack of research on what treatments are effective, and physicians' failure to communicate to patients about their treatment options. The thing is, there are huge differences in policy between the two tickets on those issues. Since the post appeared on The Agenda, it could have done a lot more to point out those differences--like the fact that the ACA moves Medicare away from paying for the volume of services and toward rewarding higher-quality, more cost-effective care, or that it funds patient-centered outcomes research to determine which treatments actually work. On the other hand, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, recently parroted the absurd idea that IPAB is a "death panel," even though it is specifically prohibited from rationing care. That kind of rhetoric is hard to square with the notion that a Romney/Ryan administration would be willing to take any political risk to push back against unnecessary care.
Finally, on a related note, Dr. Aaron Carroll of The Incidental Economist has pulled together an incredibly useful set of politically difficult truths about reducing healthcare spending, in a set of posts titled "Why is this so hard to understand?" All of them are important and worth reading:
Part 1: When Medicare spending goes up, seniors’ premium costs go up.
Part 2: You can be for reducing Medicare spending, or you can be for increasing Medicare spending, but you can’t be for both.
Part 3: If you spend more on Medicare, someone has to pay for it.
Part 4: Don’t argue that reducing government involvement is the way to reduce spending.