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.However, when comparative effectiveness research was proposed as an element of US health care reform, it was attacked as a vehicle for the dreaded rationing of health care (even though in the US health care is already rationed, especially to those without generous insurance or the means to pay for expensive tests and treatments), using arguments based more on emotions, or outright fallacies than on logic and evidence. For example, see our blog posts here, here, here, and here.
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.
Those opposed to the sort of comparative effectiveness research I described above then seemingly decided, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Thus, a provision appeared in a recent version of health care reform legislation proposed in the US Senate for comparative effectiveness research to be sponsored by an "independent" institute whose board of directors would have to include a substantial minority of representatives of industry (that is, drug, biotechnology, device, health insurance corporations, and other corporations as "payers.") This would seems to be a fairly shameless form of "regulatory capture," that is, an instance in which a government agency whose mission seems to be to improve health care is "captured" by those with vested interests in promoting certain health care products and services. (See post here.)
My concern has now seemingly gone mainstream, in that it was addressed in a commentary published on-line in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. [Selker HP, Wood AJJ. Industry influence on comparative-effectiveness research funded through health care reform. N Engl J Med 2009. Link here.]
Selker and Wood addressed the issue of regulatory capture thus.
Although most observers agree on the value of funding CER, many are unaware that embedded in the legislation are provisions ceding substantial influence to the medical products industries that have a major interest in the outcomes of such research.
The Senate Finance Committee bill mandates the creation of an entirely new private–public research entity and, owing to industry lobbying, guarantees industry three seats on this entity’s 15-member governing board, as well as representation on its methodology committee
Note that the situation is worse considering that the insurance industry and other "payers" also have seats on the board.
However, Selker and Wood discovered an even more outrageous provision:
The Finance Committee bill also includes language requested by industry lobbyists (pages 1138–1139) that threatens to withdraw federal funding for 5 years from any investigator who publishes a report on research funded by the proposed institute that is not within the bounds of and entirely consistent with the evidence.' Determinations regarding such consistency would be made by the newly created research entity, which would have industry involvement both in its governance and in study design. To allow scientists — and their institutions, which receive the support for the conduct of research — to be punished for the publication of work that is not approved by this entity is essentially to cede authority over the dissemination of government-funded research to a body that is at least partially controlled by persons with a potential commercial interest in its outcome.
As Selker and Wood noted, it is unprecedented for a US government agency that is meant to sponsor science to be empowered to punish researchers for conclusions or opinions with which the agency disagrees. This suggests that the new agency would be meant to produce only results that support the vested interests of its leadership, that is, that favor the latest, and most expensive drugs and devices. The research sponsored by such an agency would not only be biased, it would likely be of poor quality, because researchers of integrity would likely avoid sponsorship by an agency that would be so threatening to their scientific independence.
This part of the bill does not promote health reform, but blatantly attempts to serve health care corporations while sacrificing the interests of patients and doctors.
As Selker and Wood politely put it:
If health care reform legislation does not promote CER that is free of the potential taint of commercial and political meddling, the public will have little confidence in the results of such research. This outcome would be extremely unfortunate, since such research has the potential to improve patients’ lives by leading to more effective medical care. The U.S. biomedical research enterprise has a long and storied history that has made it a model for other countries. It would be a tragedy if we were to squander its achievements for political expediency, in the service of short-term commercial interests. The current proposals for controlling CER in a manner unlike anything we have seen in federally sponsored biomedical research therefore should be rejected.
It seems to be almost gilding the lilly to note that the provision cited above seems to violate the free speech and free press provisions of the 1st amendment of the US Constitution, since they threaten government punishment of private citizens (e.g., by withdrawal of existing funding) purely for speech that the government does not like.
So I ask the anonymous Senate aide who drafted this provision, and the anonymous lobbyist(s) who influenced him or her, have they no shame?
Finally, I have yet to see coverage of the Selker and Wood article in the mainstream media. I hope they will eventually conclude that this attempt to co-opt clinical science and mock the 1st amendment is actually news and comment worthy.