Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain have been traveling the country laying out their solutions to the problem of escalating health-care costs. One plan they all favor is ramping up federal funding for so-called “evidence-based” medicine.

The theory behind evidence-based medicine is simple: If the government were to run clinical trials testing the effectiveness of drugs and medical technologies, and then use the results to determine what to cover, taxpayers would avoid paying for treatments that aren’t effective enough to justify their price tag.

Sounds great, right? Too bad that in practice, evidence-based programs are largely driven by the political imperative to cut costs — not the medical imperative to give patients the best care possible.

That was certainly the case for CATIE, or the Clinical Antipsychotic Trials in Intervention Effectiveness. This federally funded, $40 million study concluded new “atypical” nonpsychotic drugs are no more effective at treating schizophrenia symptoms than are older drugs. Because this finding flatly contradicted psychiatrists’ real-world observations, CATIE had no impact on which drugs were prescribed for schizophrenia.

Like most large-scale trials, CATIE took a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. Evidence-based programs encourage this approach. The underlying assumption is that the same care can be applied to every patient suffering from the same disease.

Modern science disproves that notion. Everyone has a unique biological makeup. Health-care professionals need to be given the autonomy to tailor their treatments to the specific needs of their patents.

Evidence-based programs rarely provide that autonomy. In the long run, this often results in higher costs.

Consider an overweight man who is forced to take a cheaper, less effective anti-cholesterol drug. If he ends up in the emergency room because of undertreated cardiovascular disease, this could end up costing the health-care system significantly more money.

All too often, denying patients access to the right medicines early on means paying for more invasive and expensive procedures later.

The evidence confirms this. A study from the University of Utah examined the relationship between cost-containment programs and the total cost of health care for a number of medical conditions. It found that the tighter the restrictions on which treatments a physician could administer, the higher the overall cost of care.

Medical treatment should be based on the specific genetic, clinical and demographic factors of an individual patient. That’s how you keep people healthy. In an era of personalized medicine, one-size-fits-all health-care strategies are dangerously outdated.

Choosing short-term savings over long-term results has a pernicious effect on the public purse and public health. Strenuous cost controls compromise patient care.

The theory behind and the practice of evidence-based medicine just don’t match up. And until politicians can show how they’ll resolve that tension, they need to look elsewhere in their quest to find politically palpable solutions to the country’s health-care woes.

Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

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