Doctors, patients working together on health costs

Pauline W. Chen, M.D. / New York Times News Service /


Published Feb 28, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

A colleague and I recently got into a heated discussion over health care spending. It wasn’t that we disagreed about the need to rein in costs, but he said he was frustrated every time he tried to do so.

Earlier that week, for example, he had tried to avoid ordering a costly MRI scan for a patient who had been having headaches. After a thorough examination, my colleague was convinced the headaches were the result of stress.

But the patient was not.

“She wouldn’t leave until she got that MRI,” my colleague said.

Even after he had explained his conclusions several times, proposed a return visit in a month to reassess the situation and ran so far overtime that his office nurse knocked on the door to make sure nothing had gone awry, the patient continued to insist on getting the expensive study.

When my colleague finally invoked cost — telling the woman that while an MRI might ferret out rare causes, it didn’t make sense to spend the enormous fee on something of such marginal benefit — the woman became belligerent.

“She yelled that this was her head we were talking about,” he recalled. “And expensive tests like this were the reason she had health insurance.”

Face flushed, he paused to take a deep breath.

“Yeah, I may be all for controlling costs,” he finally said. “But are our patients?”

According to a new study in the policy journal Health Affairs, his concern about patients may not be far off the mark.

There have been a number of proposals in recent years aimed at controlling spiraling health care costs, to replace the current model in which doctors are reimbursed for every office visit, test or procedure performed. These programs range from pay-for-performance, where doctors can earn more by meeting predetermined quality “goals” like controlling patients’ blood sugar or high blood pressure, to accountable care organizations, where clinicians and hospitals in partnership are paid a lump sum to cover all care.

Their uninspired monikers aside, all of these plans share one defining feature: Doctors are to be the agents of change. Whether linked with quality measures, bundled payments or satisfaction scores, it is the doctors’ behavior that results in savings, goes the thinking.

But as the new study reveals, doctors need to take into account more than just symptoms and diseases when deciding treatment. They must also consider patients’ opinions and willingness to be cost-conscious when it comes to their own care.

The researchers conducted more than 20 patient focus groups and asked the participants to imagine themselves with various symptoms and a choice of diagnostic and treatment options that varied only slightly in effectiveness but significantly in cost. They were asked, for example, to choose between an MRI or a CT scan for a severe long-standing headache, with the MRI being much more expensive but also more likely to catch some extremely rare problems.

When it came to their own treatment, “patients for the most part did not want cost to play any role in decision-making,” said Dr. Susan Dorr Goold, one of the study authors and a professor of internal medicine and health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Most did not want their doctors to take cost into account, and many made it clear that they would ask for the more expensive drugs, procedures or diagnostic studies, even if those options were only slightly better than the cheaper alternatives.

“That puts doctors, whose primary responsibility is to their individual patients, in a very difficult position,” Goold said.

A majority of the participants refused to consider the expenses borne by insurers or by society as a whole when making their choices. Some doubted that one individual’s efforts would have any real effect and so gave up considering cost altogether. Others said they would go out of their way to choose the more expensive options, viewing such decisions as acts of defiance and a kind of well-deserved “payback” after years of paying insurance premiums.

Underlying all of these comments was the belief that cost was synonymous with quality. Even when the focus group leaders reminded participants that the differences between proposed options were nearly negligible, participants continued to choose the more expensive options as if it were beyond question that they must be more efficacious or foolproof.

The study’s findings are disheartening. But Goold and her co-investigators believe that public beliefs and attitudes about cost and quality can be changed. They cite the dramatic transformation in attitudes about end-of-life care as an example of how initiatives to improve understanding can lead people to make higher quality and more cost-effective decisions, like choosing hospices over hospitals.

“We need to begin to talk about these issues in a way that doesn’t turn it into a discussion pitting money against life, and we need to find ways of getting people to think about not spending money on things that offer marginal benefit,” Goold said. “Because it’s going to be tough otherwise trying to implement any cost-saving measures, if patients don’t accept them.”