In selling the health care overhaul to Congress, the Obama administration cited a once obscure research group at Dartmouth College to claim that it could not only cut billions in wasteful health care spending but make people healthier by doing so.
Wasteful spending — perhaps $700 billion a year — "does nothing to improve patient health but subjects you and me to tests and procedures that aren't necessary and are potentially harmful," the president's budget director, Peter Orszag, wrote in a blog post characteristic of the administration's argument.
Mr. Orszag even displayed maps produced by Dartmouth researchers that appeared to show where the waste in the system could be found. Beige meant hospitals and regions that offered good, efficient care; chocolate meant bad and inefficient.
The maps made reform seem relatively easy to many in Congress, some of whom demanded the administration simply trim the money Medicare pays to hospitals and doctors in the brown zones. The administration promised to seriously consider doing just that.
But while the research compiled in the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care has been widely interpreted as showing the country's best and worst care, the Dartmouth researchers themselves acknowledged in interviews that in fact it mainly shows the varying costs of care in the government's Medicare program. Measures of the quality of care are not part of the formula.
For all anyone knows, patients could be dying in far greater numbers in hospitals in the beige regions than hospitals in the brown ones, and Dartmouth's maps would not pick up that difference. As any shopper knows, cheaper does not always mean better.
Even Dartmouth's claims about which hospitals and regions are cheapest may be suspect. The principal argument behind Dartmouth's research is that doctors in the Upper Midwest offer consistently better and cheaper care than their counterparts in the South and in big cities, and if Southern and urban doctors would be less greedy and act more like ones in Minnesota, the country would be both healthier and wealthier.
But the real difference in costs between, say, Houston and Bismarck, N.D., may result less from how doctors work than from how patients live. Houstonians may simply be sicker and poorer than their Bismarck counterparts. Also, nurses in Houston tend to be paid more than those in North Dakota because the cost of living is higher in Houston. Neither patients' health nor differences in prices are fully considered by the Dartmouth Atlas.
The mistaken belief that the Dartmouth research proves that cheaper care is better care is widespread — and has been fed in part by Dartmouth researchers themselves.
The debate about the Dartmouth work is important because a growing number of health policy researchers are finding that overhauling the nation's health care system will be far harder and more painful than the Dartmouth work has long suggested. Cuts, if not made carefully, could cost lives.
Looking in detail at Dartmouth's evidence helps show why.