I'm on the road now, and yesterday gave the talk I wrote about (here) last week. (I'm not writing about the venue of the talk since it was an internal meeting, not a public session.)
I came away from the event convinced more than ever that a robust program of comparative effectiveness research (CER) is the crucial next baby step for improving the value of what we in the U.S. health "system" do in health care and making the topic of health care costs less toxic. Sadly, the challenge for us in the U.S. is to begin to deal with runaway costs in a serious fashion rather than waiting for the tooth fairy or the Wizard of Oz to make the problem go away. (See "Cost Control: How Incapacitated are We?" by Paul Menzel on the Hastings Center Health Care Cost Monitor for an analysis of the almost total collapse of meaningful cost containment in the health reform process.)
CER studies compare alternative approaches to treating the same condition. It's most straightforward when the comparison is between drug A and drug B, but in principle we can compare a drug to, say, meditation or exercise, as well. The legislation that is moving through Congress is careful to insist that CER cannot be used to manage care or drive insurance coverage. Drug companies are terrified at the prospect that CER will deflate their claims about "me too" drugs. Medical specialists fear that a sham treatment may equal or outperfom their favorite procedures, as has happened in prior research on surgery. It's a fairly safe prediction that the first thing that will happen from CER is....very little.
CER dramatizes the fact that much of what we do in health care is based on faith, not evidence. It treats our beliefs as hypotheses which may be correct but could be off the mark. For healing to occur we must have faith in our doctors. The more evidence our doctors have about what works best the more that faith is warranted and will be rewarded.
Because it's so obvious that when two approaches are equivalent there has to be a VERY good reason for not choosing the less costly alternative, CER will gradually shake us out of the reflexive U.S. attitude that costs should not be considered in delivering care. It's best to see the health reform process as a first step, not a "solution." If Congress can fashion a bill that the President can sign we'll have demonstrated that our fractious and wildly irrational political process can engage with health care. It seems certain that whatever emerges will be profoundly imperfect. But if the body politic and the legislature comes away from the reform process with more confidence about tackling health care, we'll be in a better position to learn from the flaws in what emerges and to take some wiser next steps.
That's where CER comes in. It enacts a scientific approach to a realm that is increasingly dominated by advertising and economic interests. The first useful impact will be when insured folks say "let's bring premiums down by doing what works best at the lowest cost" and taxpayers say "let's put some teeth into Medicare by using the results of CER." Vested interests have blocked these steps in the legislative process so far. But if the public, and our political leaders, see more facts emerging from CER, it will be harder for PAC contributions and advertising flim flam to drive health care.