Physicians spend a lot of time trying to figure out the best treatments for particular patients' problems. Doing so is often hard. In many situations, there are many plausible treatments, but the trick is picking the one most likely to do the most good and least harm for a particular patient. Ideally, this is where evidence based medicine comes in. But the biggest problem with using the EBM approach is that often the best available evidence does not help much. In particular, for many clinical problems, and for many sorts of patients, no one has ever done a good quality study that compares the plausible treatments for those problems and those patients. When the only studies done compared individual treatments to placebos, and when even those were restricted to narrow patient populations unlike those patient usually seen in daily practice, physicians are left juggling oranges, tomatoes, and carburetors.
Comparative effectiveness studies are simply studies that compare plausible treatments that could be used for patients with particular problems, and which are designed to be generalizable to the sorts of patients usually seen in practice. As a physician, I welcome such studies, because they may provide very useful information that could help me select the optimal treatments for individual patients.
Because I believe that comparative effectiveness studies could be very useful to improve patient care, it upsets me to see this particular kind of clinical study get caught in political, ideological, and economic battles.
In particular, we have discussed a number of high profile attacks on comparative effectiveness research, which often have featured arguments based on logical fallacies. While some of the people making the attacks have assumed a conservative or libertarian ideological mantle, one wonders whether the attacks were more driven by personal financial interests. For example, see our blog posts here, here, here, and here.
Therefore, it was refreshing to see this defense of comparative effectiveness research in the opinion pages of the New York Times, which demonstrated that the issues here are really not ideological.
Drawing upon the ideas of the Harvard economist David Cutler, the Obama administration talks of empowering an independent board of experts to judge the comparative effectiveness of health care expenditures; the goal is to limit or withdraw Medicare support for ineffective ones. This idea is long overdue, and the critics who contend that it amounts to 'rationing' or 'the government telling you which medical treatments you can have' are missing the point. The motivating idea is the old conservative chestnut that not every private-sector expenditure deserves a government subsidy.
This was written by Tyler Cowen, a well known academic economist, a Professor in that department at George Mason University with impeccable libertarian credentials. (Prof Cowen also blogs on Marginal Revolution.) Prof Cowen reminded us how the current health care reform debate could benefit from some clear thinking that eschews ideological posturing.