A back-pain researcher, Dr. Richard Deyo recalls the uproar the last time federal officials tried to suggest how doctors should practice their profession.
It was in the mid-1990s, when Dr. Deyo helped develop federal guidelines urging surgeons not to perform spinal fusions to treat acute pain. The reason was simple: There was little evidence that the fusions worked in many patients.
Spine specialists quickly attacked the report, calling it flawed. One medical device maker, Medtronic, sued unsuccessfully to block its release. Republican lawmakers tried to kill the agency that issued the report. It survived, but its funding was drastically cut, and it decided to stop issuing guidelines.
Now, 15 years later, the Obama administration is entering this same medical minefield. And once again, opponents are gearing up for a fight.
The administration plans to spend $1.1 billion over the next few years on studies like the one conducted by Dr. Deyo, to compare the effectiveness of competing treatments for common conditions like back pain, heart disease and prostate cancer. The studies will be publicly released, to help doctors and patients decide which treatment options they want to pursue.
Supporters include many medical researchers, consumer groups, unions and insurers. They say such studies are essential to curbing the widespread use of ineffective treatments and to helping control health care costs, which totaled $2.2 trillion in 2007, or 16 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
The New England Journal of Medicine published several articles Wednesday supporting the federal effort and rebutting arguments raised by critics.
But potential opponents — which include medical products companies, some doctors and their political allies — warn that the comparative effectiveness movement could lead to inadequate treatment for some patients and even the rationing of health care.
"It is not difficult to see how you can get on a slippery slope very easily," said Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman who is head of a new industry-backed Washington group called the Partnership to Improve Patient Care, formed to lobby on the comparative effectiveness effort.
The group's backers include major trade organizations that represent producers of drugs, medical devices and biological treatments.
Critics like Mr. Coelho also point to a British government agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, or NICE, which considers costs in judging a treatment's effectiveness. Based on NICE's findings, the British government has denied some patients access to costly drugs like those used to treat cancer.
Whether cost should be a factor in this country was a hot-button issue during the Congressional debate in February, when the comparative-effectiveness funding was approved as part of the economic stimulus package. A legislative report by Congressional lawmakers who negotiated the final version of the bill said that they did not intend the research money to be used to "mandate coverage, reimbursement or other policies for any public or private payer."
Despite that assurance, even supporters of the effort say one goal in identifying effective medical treatments is to stop wasting money on those of little value.