credit: 401(K) 2012
The New England Journal of Medicine just published a great article about physician stewardship as it relates to medical spending. The piece, called "Cents and Sensitivity—Teaching Physicians to Think about Costs," discusses whether or not we should be training physicians to consider the bills patients will face when making decisions about what treatment to choose. (Aaron Carroll’s treatment of this piece is here.) The authors propose that teaching physicians to be more cost-conscious will increase their capacity to care for the whole patient, not just their symptoms:
"Whether it’s lack of time, fear of “missing something,” or simple ignorance, the incentives to do more often overwhelm our impulse to use resources wisely. Now some educational reformers are offering us an added ethical incentive. Put simply, helping a patient become well enough to climb the stairs to his apartment is meaningless if our care leaves him unable to afford that apartment. Protecting our patients from financial ruin is fundamental to doing no harm."
We agree that overtreatment is a problem, and we applaud the NEJM for addressing it. It says a lot about how far we have come from even five years ago when everyone was thumping their chests and talking about how we have “the best healthcare in the world.” But we believe that there’s an even greater reason to address the topic of overtreatment: because it is dangerous. Starting with the Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, “To Err is Human,” the research has continued to demonstrate that more does not always mean better.
So yes, physicians should consider what patients can afford, but even before that, physicians need to realize that doing nothing is often safer than putting patients at risk with treatments that don’t work. Fiscal responsibility—making sure we aren’t sending Grandpa Frank from the ICU to the poor house—will be the natural consequence.