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. On the other hand, we discussed a clear-headed defense of comparative effectiveness research by a well-known economist most would regard as libertarian here.
Comparative effectiveness research has been discussed as an element of health care reform in the US. It turns out that the current version of the health care reform bill in the US Senate has a provision to create a Patient Centered Outcome Research Institute, which presumably would become the major organization which could sponsor comparative effectiveness research.
This institute, however, would not be a government agency (despite the name that makes it sound like it would be part of the National Institutes of Health). Moreover, here is a description of the Board of Governors who would run the institute from the current version of the bill :
BOARD OF GOVERNORS.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—The Institute shall have a Board of Governors, which shall consist of 15 members appointed by the Comptroller General of the United States not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this section, as follows:
(A) 3 members representing patients and health care consumers.
(B) 3 members representing practicing physicians, including surgeons.
(C) 3 members representing private payers, of whom at least 1 member shall represent health insurance issuers and at least 1 member shall represent employers who self-insure employee benefits.
(D) 3 members representing pharmaceutical, device, and diagnostic manufacturers or developers.
(E) 1 member representing nonprofit organizations involved in health services research.
(F) 1 member representing organizations that focus on quality measurement and improvement or decision support.
(G) 1 member representing independent health services researchers.
Thus, only 3/15 members of the governing board would represent the patients who ultimately reap the benefits or suffer the harms produced by medical diagnosis and treatment. Further, 6/15 members represent for-profit corporations which stand to make more or less money depending on how particular comparative effectiveness studies come out. Also, 3/15 members would be physicians, some of who may get paid more to deliver particular treatments (e.g., procedures) than others (e.g., providing advice about diet and exercise).
We often discuss how clinical research sponsored by organizations with vested interest in the research turning out to favor their products or services may be manipulated to favor these interests, and sometimes suppressed if it does not. In the US, there are few unconflicted sources of sparse funds to support comparative effectiveness research. (The most significant current source is the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, AHRQ. For full disclosure, I have been an ad hoc reviewer of grants for that agency.)
The current draft of legislation would create the largest potential sponsor for comparative effectiveness research, but would make that organization report to representatives of for-profit companies whose profits may be affected by the results of such research. In my humble opinion, this is not much of an advance. Comparative effectiveness research controlled by corporations that stand to profit or lose depending on its results will forever be suspect.
If the government is going to support comparative effectiveness research, it ought to make sure such research is not run by people with vested interests in the outcomes coming out a certain way. I may be biased myself, but why not let the research be sponsored by AHRQ, an agency with relevant experience and no axe to grind vis a vis any particular product or service?