Wasting Money At the End of Life?

December 17, 2011
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Peter Bach is a physician with a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times. Dr. Bach’s piece about whether or not end-of-life health care spending is wasteful is compelling. I recommend you read his essay, but I want to hit some of the high points.

Peter Bach is a physician with a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times. Dr. Bach’s piece about whether or not end-of-life health care spending is wasteful is compelling. I recommend you read his essay, but I want to hit some of the high points.

The first is that we may be making an error based on hindsight. Precisely because hindsight is 20/20, we can fall into the trap of evaluating health care decisions after the outcome is known, which is not how health care decisions are actually made. So, as Dr. Bach stresses, a tremendous amount of health care spending may be deemed warranted if it saves the life of the patient, but the same spending would be labeled wasteful if the patient dies. This is an excellent point.

Other points Dr. Bach makes relate to supposed sources of bias. For example, sick people need more health care (which costs more money) and are also more likely to die. Ergo, the link between health care spending and death is likely to be positive, but the reality is that health status is the common denominator. He also laments the fact that data on end-of-life spending is much more readily available than data on other types of health care spending. That’s also a pretty accurate assertion.

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It’s in his concluding remarks that Dr. Bach gets to the real matter at hand: We don’t know who is going to benefit and who isn’t. In his essay, he describes how he saved someone’s life. As it turns out, the condition that person had is fatal in about 1 of every 8 cases. In other words, paying to intervene for that condition seems like a good bet. If, on the other hand, only 1 out of 8 people with the condition survived, it might be a tougher sell. Of course, what that scenario underscores is that the overall costs and benefits are important to understand, but so are the individual risks and benefits. For example, if you have the condition, you are probably hoping that you are the 1 person who will survive after receiving the intervention, not counting on your being 1 of the other 7.

Research that can help us understand not only which procedures are generally more effective than others, but also who the 1 person who loses or benefits (given the two scenarios above) will be, are the next frontier in improving the health care system–cutting costs without harming quality. Of course, this type of research will bring accusations of “death panels” back out of the woodwork. I just hope few people will actually take such things seriously, so that the necessary work can proceed. Without it, I’m not sure that there’s much hope.