Evidence Based Medicine – NICE or Nasty?

The US Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) recently released a report on “Creating a Center for Evidence-Based Medicine” that was prepared by an outside analysis group. Before dissecting the MedPAC report, let me just lay out some of the more controversial aspects of evidence-based medicine (EBM):

  • How are the results of EBM research used for coverage or payment?
  • Are the EBM conclusions based upon reviews of prior studies or on research done specifically for the EBM analyses?
  • Are the EBM conclusions relevant only for a clinical research situation, or do they reflect real-world practices?
  • All medical practices evolve and “best medical practices” are reflected last in textbooks….. after they appear in journals….. after they have been presented at meetings….. after research has been done to understand these practices. How do EBM analyses account for this timeliness factor and include the latest advances?
  • How does the EBM analytical process question the validity of its own assumptions – particularly the perceived benefit by patients, or calculations about the “value” of the outcomes from a treatment?
  • And related to the previous question – Do the EBM analyses reflect only the benefits to the individual patient or spending by the health plan, or do they include benefits to other parts of society, i.e. families, employers, etc.

Overall, the question is, how does EBM research translate information about the outcomes produced by various medical treatments into better medical practices? When I was in medical school, this was the purpose of textbooks and professors. If national (or global) EBM organizations can accelerate this process and make it more accessible (possibly using new information technologies), then that’s probably fine. But if its functions are subordinate to the cost reduction agendas of healthcare payers, (and this leads to rationing of healthcare services and products based more upon cost than real value – which has been the case with virtually all existing EBM organizations), then a US Center for EBM will become another part of our healthcare system’s problems rather than a step towards solving them.

Below is some commentary on the MedPAC report and some of the existing EBM organizations it discusses:

The MedPAC report outlines several layers of functions for the proposed Center for EBM:

  1. Practice Identification and Review
  2. Dissemination (of information and conclusions)
  3. Training and Technical Assistance
  4. Practice Adoption (via education and working with stakeholders)
  5. Clinical Outcome Review

Clearly #4 is the key to making EBM research findings useful, and the report cites three critical issue for the voluntary adoption of practices found to be beneficial via EBM research:

  1. Credibility
  2. Stakeholder Involvement
  3. Viable Economic Incentives

Of these, #3 is the most contentious, and the report notes that, “Since economic incentives often represent a threat to opponents of creating a centralized organization of the type described here, it may be desirable to leave that implementation to policy makers rather than treating it as the role of the organization.”

As noted above, a major controversy about “Evidence-Based Medicine” (EBM) is how it is used to make coverage and reimbursement decisions. The report recommends that EBM research and these decisions be kept separate, but the experience with EBM organizations in other countries, and in US health programs like Medicaid and the VA, has been that this is often not followed in practice. On one end is the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Advisory Panel (MAP) which – as part of the VA’a National Formulary development process – is tasked with performing evidence-based reviews of therapeutic drug classes “that may or may not lead to national standardization contract initiatives.” While this sounds like a rationale and analytical process, my experience with this process is that the MAP does analyses to justify the inclusion of the least expensive medicines on the VA’s formulary.

Because the VA is only about 5% of the US healthcare market, it doesn’t have a sweeping impact on medical care in the US. However, it often goes on the record saying that its methodologies should be adopted by Medicare and private insurers – something that would have much greater implications.

The MedPAC report also talks extensively about the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). This is one of the most studied EBM-type organizations. While unlike the VA’s MAP, NICE is not technically part of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), it is created and funded by the British government – so just as two brothers are not the same person, they receive their allowance from the same parents. While the MedPAC report generally praises NICE, the real world experience of patients and companies is somewhat different, and in the global discussion of healthcare policy and economics, it is often cited as a classic fourth hurdle for accessing treatments, i.e. it has become the NHS’s de facto rationing resource.

And one final note of concern. In a previous post, I discussed the very low attendance at a session on Comparative Effectiveness (a type of EBM research) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). If at a meeting with thousands of researchers, almost none were interested in this topic, what does that portend for the ability of a national EBM organization to conduct independent and analytically driven research without undue political and financial influences?

Have you seen payers pushing clinical practice recommendations under the guise of EBM when they were clearly financially driven initiatives to limit access to certain treatments (a.k.a. rationing), and would produce lower quality care for patients or just chew up the clinician’s time trying to navigate the additional barrier to getting the best care for patients?

What are your thoughts?

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