Last night, however, President Obama held a news conference mostly devoted to health care issues, in which he stressed the importance of changing not just how health insurance works, but how health care decisions are made. As Newsweek's "The Gaggle" blog reported,
Can I guarantee that there are going to be no changes in the health care delivery system? No. The whole point of this is to try to encourage changes that work for the American people and make them healthier. The government already is making some of these decisions. More importantly, insurance companies right now are making those decisions. And part of what we want to do is to make sure that those decisions are being made by doctors and medical experts based on evidence, based on what works, because that's not how it's working right now.
So what the President seems to be advocating is making health care more evidence-based, perhaps in the formal sense of evidence-based medicine.
As a card-carrying evidence-based medicine advocate, I certainly agree, but let me reiterate that evidence-based medicine is not just medicine based on some sort of evidence. As Dr David Sackett, and colleagues wrote [Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Muir Gray JA, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. Evidence-based medicine; what it is and what it isn't. BMJ 1996; 312: 71-72. Link here. ]
Evidence based medicine is the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice. Increased expertise is reflected in many ways, but especially in more effective and efficient diagnosis and in the more thoughtful identification and compassionate use of individual patients' predicaments, rights, and preferences in making clinical decisions about their care. By best available external clinical evidence we mean clinically relevant research, often from the basic sciences of medicine, but especially from patient centred clinical research into the accuracy and precision of diagnostic tests (including the clinical examination), the power of prognostic markers, and the efficacy and safety of therapeutic, rehabilitative, and preventive regimens.
Evidence based medicine is not 'cookbook' medicine. Because it requires a bottom up approach that integrates the best external evidence with individual clinical expertise and patients' choice, it cannot result in slavish, cookbook approaches to individual patient care. External clinical evidence can inform, but can never replace, individual clinical expertise, and it is this expertise that decides whether the external evidence applies to the individual patient at all and, if so, how it should be integrated into a clinical decision.
One can find other definitions of EBM, but nearly all emphasize that the approach is designed to appropriately apply results from the best clinical research, critically reviewed, to the individual patient, taking into account that patient's clinical characteristics and personal values.
So far, so good. I believe the proper application of "real" (as described above) evidence-based medicine has the potential to improve patient outcomes while moderating health care costs. However, we have pointed out how problems arising from concentration and abuse of power in health care threaten the evidence-based medical ideal.
First, there are major problems with the development of the sort of clinical research evidence required by the EBM process. We have discussed how clinical research is frequently manipulated by those with vested interests in producing results that favor the products or services that they sell. The critical review process inherent in EBM is meant to cope with less than optimally designed and implemented research. However, the process was designed to cope with honest mistakes and inevitable trade-offs, not deliberate manipulation by vested interests.
Worse, we have discussed how vested interests may engineer the suppression of research when manipulation fails to produce the desired results. The EBM process assumes that the research on which decisions should be based is an unbiased sample of research that was done (and done to advance science, not commercial or ideological interests). When research whose results are unwanted by vested interests is suppressed, the resulting distortion of the evidence base may irretrievably bias the EBM process.
Finally, we have posted about how vested interests have distorted the discussion, dissemination, and teaching of the results of clinical research. They may develop systematic stealth marketing campaigns, often employing supposed "key opinion leaders," who are paid on the side by marketers, and using "medical education and communication companies"as marketing fronts whose publication strategies include deceptive tactics such as "ghost-writing."
Thus, a rising tide of "pseudo-evidence based medicine" threatens to overwhelm even the most conscientious physicians trying to practice evidence-based medicine.
So, while I applaud President Obama's advocacy of reforming health care to emphasize what the best evidence suggests really works, I do not think this effort will get far unless we deal with the rising tide of pseudo-evidence based medicine. As a minimum, we need full and detailed disclosure of all the relationships among vested interests and medical research and education, and a much greater role for research and education that is not subsidized by corporations bent on using research and education to market their products and services.