Why Comparative Effectiveness Research Will Not Ration Care

During yesterday’s mark-up of the HELP Committee’s ‘Affordable Health Choices Act,’ Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced multiple amendments preventing the government from using the results of comparative effectiveness research (CER). Responding to the Republican charges, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) pointed out that existing language already prevented the new comparative effectiveness council from using the research to make coverage decisions:

We get into this cost. We get into this repetitive word, “rationing”, “rationing.” It goes over very well with focus groups, but it has no rational here. If you go to page 323 of the actual bill, where it says ‘Incorporation.’ We absolutely prohibit that this, anything related to the Center For Health Outcomes, otherwise known as comparative effectiveness, that there “shall not be construed as mandates for payment, coverage, or treatment.” It is in the bill. Page 323, lines 5 through 7.

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Republicans relied on a three-part attack. One, ignore the existing language and offer redundant amendments prohibiting the comparative effectiveness center from mandating that doctors prescribe ‘the best’ treatments. Two — this is a somewhat more coherent strategy — argue that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) could use the information to make coverage decisions for Medicare. And three, if the government uses the comparative research results to establish best practice guidelines, then doctors who don’t follow the guidelines but rather consider the individual needs of their patients, could be liable for malpractice claims.


But even the last two arguments fall apart on close scrutiny. The government isn’t mandating that doctors adopt the results of CER and it is not rationing care. Each patient has his or her unique needs and the ultimate decision for how to proceed should be left to the doctor and the patient. Currently, approximately one-third of all treatments have never been proven to produce better outcomes; CER would provide doctors with unbiased information about the most effective treatments, help doctors and patients make better informed decisions, and improve the quality of care.

Moreover, far from establishing one-size-fits all medicine or dictating treatments, properly conducted CER will actually promote faster adoption of personalized care. As Alan Garber of Stanford and Sean Tunis of the Center for Medical Technology Policy point out, “far from impeding personalized medicine, CER offers a way to hasten the discovery of the best approaches to personalization, providing more and better information with which to craft a management strategy for each individual patient.” The new CER council and CMS seek to preserve a personalized approach — that is, allow doctors to make decisions based on a patient’s history and individual needs — while eliminating truly ineffective treatments.

CER results are rarely black and white and no one study should serve as a final word on a coverage decision. But given the amount of unnecessary, redundant and ultimately harmful treatments, the government has an interest in informing health care providers about best practices — and this is what the legislation does and our doctors want. More efficient medicine is better medicine, and anyone who wants to prevent the system from wasting money is in the pockets of the medical industrial complex that is getting rich while we get sick.

After all, the “art of medicine,” as Coburn calls it, already relies on certain standards and practice guidelines and physicians often incorporate their knowledge of the patient and clinical experience to offer a patient-centered approach, as such only about half of the recommended guidelines are followed. Ultimately, however, doctors are not superheroes; they should not be ignoring “standard protocols” or attempting to re-enact the heroics of Fox’s HOUSE. They are currently driven by a set of professional standards and procedures, and as patients, it is in our interest to encourage providers to incorporate certain guidelines (derived from CER) into routine practice. After all, “the last thing most Americans want from this wise use of taxpayer funds is more published research gathering dust on library shelves.”