Early in 2009, members of major health care–related industries such as insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, medical device makers, and hospitals all agreed to forgo some future profits to show support for the Obama administration's health care reform efforts. Skeptics have questioned the value of these promises, regarding at least some of them as more cosmetic than substantive. Nonetheless, these industries made a gesture and scored some public-relations points.
The medical profession's reaction has been quite different. Although major professional organizations have endorsed various reform measures, no promises have been made in terms of cutting any future medical costs. Indeed, in some cases, physician support has been made contingent on promises that physicians' income would not be negatively affected by reform.
It is appropriate to question the ethics of organized medicine's public stance. Physicians have, in effect, sworn an oath to place the interests of the patient ahead of their own interests — including their financial interests. None of the for-profit health care industries that have promised cost savings have taken such an oath. How can physicians, alone among the "special interests" affected by health care reform, justify demanding protection from revenue losses?
Physicians might insist that they should be immune from income loss if the causes of excessive health care costs are beyond their control. The American Medical Association (AMA), for example, addresses cost containment almost solely by calling for malpractice reform, suggesting that high costs are the fault of the legal and not the medical system.1
Unfortunately, the myth that physicians are innocent bystanders merely watching health care costs zoom out of control cannot be sustained. What we now know about regional variation in costs within the United States suggests that nearly one third of health care costs could be saved without depriving any patient of beneficial care, if physicians in higher-cost regions ordered tests and treatments in a pattern similar to that followed by physicians in lower-cost regions.2 We also have good reason to believe that physicians in lower-cost regions order and provide evidence-based tests and treatments just as often as their higher-cost colleagues do, but they tend to avoid providing care whose usefulness is not well supported by existing evidence.3 In short, U.S. physicians could do a great deal to control costs if they were willing to practice more in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and to study more seriously the data on regional practice variations.
Physicians should recognize that the high cost of future medical care is one of the main stumbling blocks to the passage of health care reform legislation that would extend insurance coverage to most Americans who now lack it. Physicians know from experience how people's health is placed at risk when they lack insurance and access to basic, timely care. A profession that has sworn to put the patient's interest first — to conduct itself as a profession and not merely as a business — cannot justifiably stand idly by and allow legislation that would extend basic access to care to go down to defeat while refusing to contemplate any meaningful measures it might take to reduce health care costs.
In my view, organized medicine must reverse its current approach to the political negotiations over health care reform. I would propose that each specialty society commit itself immediately to appointing a blue-ribbon study panel to report, as soon as possible, that specialty's "Top Five" list. The panels should include members with special expertise in clinical epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, and evidence-based appraisal. The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit. Examples of items that could easily end up on such lists include arthroscopic surgery for knee osteoarthritis and many common uses of computed tomographic scans, which not only add to costs but also expose patients to the risks of radiation.4,5
Having once agreed on the Top Five list, each specialty society should come up with an implementation plan for educating its members as quickly as possible to discourage the use of the listed tests or treatments for specified categories of patients. Umbrella organizations such as the AMA might push hard on specialty societies and pressure the laggards to step up.
Some societies will be tempted to bluff their way through the Top Five exercise, deliberately omitting cost-cutting measures that would particularly affect members' revenue streams. Societies could display their professional seriousness by submitting their lists for review and comment to several societies in other specialties.
Some would object that considerably more comparative-effectiveness research is needed before such lists can be compiled and implementation strategies developed. And indeed, today we have no idea how to implement a practical plan that would recapture the roughly 30% of health care expenditures estimated to be wasted on nonbeneficial measures.2 I would guess, however, that if we were trying to save that entire sum of money, we would be proposing "Top Twenty" or "Top Fifty" lists for many specialties, not just the Top Five. I suggest that no matter how desirable more research is, we know enough today to make at least a down payment on medicine's cost-cutting effort. As good citizens and patients' advocates, we should begin where we can.