For the past several years I have been following the ezetimibe controversy (see these posts on Gooznews and this blog here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In my view, we continue to lack evidence of ezetimibe’s clinical benefit, or even safety, 10 years after FDA approval.
I have a Google Scholar Alert for ezetimibe, so often links to articles on ezetimibe arrive in my email inbox. Recently, two review articles on ezetimibe were published that were a study in contrasts. The first, by Sheila Doggrell, takes a skeptical view toward ezetimibe and reaches the following conclusion:
The comparison of clinical trials with simvastatin and ezetimibe alone and together has clearly shown that simvastatin decreases LDL-cholesterol and this is associated with improved clinical outcomes. Also, ezetimibe alone or in the presence of simvastatin lowers LDL-cholesterol. However, ezetimibe alone or in the presence of simvastatin has not been shown to have any irrefutable beneficial effects on clinical outcomes. Thus, until/unless the use of ezetimibe is clearly shown to improve clinical outcomes, its use should be largely restricted to clinical trials investigating clinical outcomes, and ezetimibe should not be used routinely in everyday practice.
The second, by Binh An Phan, Thomas Dayspring and Peter Toth, takes a much more optimistic view:
In the current treatment of cardiovascular disease, many subjects fail to reach LDL-C targets or remain at high risk for CHD events despite optimal statin and medical therapy. Ezetimibe inhibits intestinal cholesterol absorption and is effective in lowering cholesterol as monotherapy or in combination with statins in several populations, including those with FH, sitosterolemia, and insulin resistance. Significant controversy has been generated regarding the clinical effectiveness of ezetimibe, particularly after the publication of ENHANCE and ARBITER-6 despite both trials having significant methodological flaws that limited their ability to evaluate the benefit of ezetimibe. Growing data suggest that ezetimibe in combination with statin has a positive effect on the progression of atherosclerosis and reduces cardiovascular events in subjects at risk for CHD, including those with chronic kidney disease. Results from IMPROVE-IT are forthcoming and may help to guide better the use of ezetimibe in very high-risk CHD populations. Until that time and based upon the current available data, ezetimibe should remain a viable adjunct to statin therapy in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia.
Dr. Phan and colleagues find reasons to dismiss the negative results of ENHANCE and ARBITER 6-HALTS as due to “methodological flaws” and use copious amounts of hand-waving to find support for ezetimibe in the SEAS and SHARP trials, even though those trials compared the combination of simvastatin and ezetimibe with placebo and thus can tell us nothing about what, if anything, ezetimibe added to those results. Could the differing views of Doggrell and Phan et al. have anything to do with the fact that Dr. Doggrell declares no conflicts of interest relating to ezetimibe, while Phan, Dayspring and Toth declare the following conflicts:
Binh An Phan is a speaker for Abbott. Thomas Dayspring consults for Abbott, GSK, Health Diagnostic Labs, Kowa Company, Eli Lilly, Merck, Genentech, The Roche Group, Genzyme, and Omthera. He is on the Lecture Bureau for Abbott, GSK, Health Diagnostic Labs, Kowa, Eli Lilly, LipoScience, Merck. Peter P Toth is a speaker for Abbott, AstraZeneca, Amylin, Boehringer-Ingelheim, GSK, Kowa, Merck and consults for Abbott, Aegerion, AstraZeneca, Atherotech, Genzyme, Genentech, Kowa, and Merck.
It is not too surprising that authors who are consultants and on the speaker’s bureau for Merck would take a favorable view of ezetimibe. What is surprising is that anyone would take their word for it.
Doggrell SA. The ezetimibe controversy — can this be resolved by comparing the clinical trials with simvastatin and ezetimibe alone and together? Expert Opin. Pharmacother. (2012) 13(10):1469-1480.
Phan BAP, et al. Ezetimibe therapy: mechanism of action and clinical update. Vascular Health and Risk Management 2012:8:415-427.
Welcome Jesse Ballenger to the blogosphere. Jesse is a historian who specializes in the history of medicine and is the author of Self, Senility and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America. Gary Schwitzer alerted me to Jesse’s post on Gina Kolata’s recent Sunday New York Times piece, How Do You Live Knowing You Might Have an Alzheimer’s Gene?, as well as to the existence of his blog, To Conquer Confusion: A Historian’s Perspective on the Science and Experience of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Jesse has both praise and criticism for Kolata’s story, and his post brings needed perspective on the history of research on Alzheimer’s as well as on the choice on Kolata’s part to present only the very optimistic views of certain Alzheimer’s researchers who “say that within a decade there could be a drug that staves off brain destruction and death.” I agree with him that “Kolata should have raised questions about this claim, and talked to experts not directly involved in the research who are far less optimistic about its potential to so quickly lead to effective treatments.” So please go read his post.
Kolata describes an American family in which many members are afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s caused by an autosomal dominant mutation. Because the mutation is dominant, each affected family member has a 50% chance of passing the mutation on to each of his or her chidren. The story is tragic and brought to my mind the emotions I experienced in 2001, when my daughter was diagnosed with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (heFH) at age 8. This is a genetic disease that causes very high LDL-cholesterol from birth and if untreated leads to early heart disease in a high percentage of patients. At the time, I was only vaguely aware that there was a history of heart disease in my husband’s family and that his mother had had a heart attack. At the urging of my daughter’s cardiologist, we asked my husband’s mother for more details and learned that her father had died of a heart attack at 35 and her brother, her only sibling, died of a heart attack at 40. My mother-in-law suffered her first heart attack at age 58. My husband inherited the mutation but has only a mild case, and my mother-in-law had never been told anything other than that she had high cholesterol, so my daughter’s diagnosis was the first occasion anyone in the family realized that the family history of early heart attacks was caused by a mutation. Fortunately, unlike the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the risk associated with heFH can now be greatly reduced if patients are treated from an early age with a statin. Homozygous FH patients, who have two copies of an FH mutation, are not so lucky and usually must undergo LDL apheresis on a regular basis.
Back to Kolata’s article: I want to expand a little on a comment I wrote on Jesse’s post. My comment related to Kolata’s comparison between the development of statins and the development of drugs to prevent Alzheimer’s. As described in Kolata’s article, certain drugs in development are being tested in persons who are carriers of an Alzheimer’s mutation but have not yet developed symptoms of the disease. The patients will receive one of several drugs or a placebo, and will be monitored for the development of certain biomarkers and, importantly, for the development of memory problems. Kolata states that “Statins, the drugs that are broadly prescribed to block the body’s cholesterol synthesis, were first found effective in studies of people who inherited a rare gene that led to severe and early heart disease.”
The disease Kolata is presumably referring to is FH, but whether her statement is accurate depends on how one defines “effective.” Early in the development of statins, after they had been tested in animals, they were given to a few patients with homozygous FH and heterozygous FH, as described in this 1992 article in the Journal of Lipid Research. However, at that time the drugs were only being tested for their ability to lower LDL and for safety. LDL-lowering is a surrogate endpoint. If by “effective” one means the prevention of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events, the statement is inaccurate. When statins came on the market in the late 1980s, FH patients were excluded from the clinical trials that were conducted to show than statins not only lowered LDL but also prevented heart attacks, strokes and death. It was considered unethical to give an FH patient a placebo. To this day, no randomized controlled trial of statins with clinical endpoints has been done in FH patients and it is unlikely that one will ever be done.
Direct evidence of the effectiveness of statins in heFH includes two observational studies, one of patients in a British registry and one of patients in a Dutch registry. In addition, the ASAP trial compared a high dose statin with a moderate dose statin in heFH patients, but the endpoint was carotid intima media thickness, “IMT” (i.e., thickness of the carotid artery measured by ultrasound). There was also a trial of statin vs. placebo in teenage FH patients using IMT as an endpoint. In addition, many trials of statins have shown a benefit in non-FH patients with elevated LDL and it is reasonable to assume that this benefit would carry over to FH patients.
Thus, the comparison between the trials of investigational Alzheimer’s drugs in mutation carriers and the testing of statins in FH patients is not particularly apt. The Alzheimer’s trials in patients with hereditary Alzheimer’s will be measuring the development of clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s (i.e., memory loss, confusion, etc.). The tests of statins in FH patients looked only at the effect of the drug on a surrogate endpoint (i.e., LDL-lowering) and no trials with clinical endpoints (i.e., heart attacks and other cardiovascular events and death) were done in FH patients.
Endo A. The discovery and development of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors. J. Lipid Res. 1992 33:(11) 1569-82.
Neil A, Cooper J, Betteridge J, et al. Reductions in all-cause, cancer, and coronary mortality in statin-treated patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolaemia: a prospective registry study. Eur Heart J 2008; 29: 2625-2633.
In January, I blogged about an open letter by Harlan Krumholz and Rodney Hayward to the panel that is currently engaged in writing new guidelines for cholesterol management. As discussed in my post, their letter challenges the committee to replace the current “treat to target” paradigm with a “tailored treatment” approach. This has been one of my more popular posts of all time, and people often find my blog by Googling “Krumholz Hayward open letter” and the like. It also has been discussed on CardioExchange. So I knew their paper had created a bit of a buzz in the cardiology community. Well, it appears that some in that community are not happy that someone is challenging the current paradigm. Dr. Krumholz reports on CardioExchange that he was approached by an influential person and asked to stop speaking out on the new approach he is advocating:
I had an experience the other week that reminded me that speaking your mind has its challenges. I was approached by someone with influence who asked me to cease my discussions on a particular topic. The reason was oblique – and I was told that people are viewing me negatively because my views are strong and wondering if there are conflicts of interest that are influencing me. In essence, I was told that people are whispering about me – though no names were given.
Now this topic was part of a scientific debate that has strong implications for guidelines and performance measures – and, well, patients. It is a situation where I am questioning conventional wisdom – and the long held beliefs by many individuals. I am trying to do so respectfully – and through the use of evidence – but still it is questioning dogma.
This conversation prompted me to write a message to my younger colleagues urging them to stand up for what they believe – and be willing to speak truth to power. I quote my friend Victor Montori, who eloquently advised a junior colleague about how to manage a concern about whether to express an opinion that was likely to be viewed negatively by her superiors. That person had been told to hold opinions tight until he had more grey hair. Victor starts by saying: ‘I have struggled with this issue for years. Turns out that this is a common struggle for those who find themselves unable to stay silent in the face of waste, error, low integrity, or abuse.’
The message Dr. Krumholz wrote is in the form of an editorial in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, entitled “A Note to My Younger Colleagues … Be Brave.” The editorial is open access, so I urge you to go read it in its entirety, but I’m going to quote this paragraph, which seems key:
If you take the path toward clarity, I guarantee that you will occasionally find people who will disparage you. They may seek to undermine you, find ways to marginalize you, and try to incriminate you. They may come from directions that surprise you. Powerful ideas often attract attacks that focus more on individuals than ideas. If you raise inconvenient truths or voice uncomfortable opinions, particularly if they threaten someone’s comfortable status quo, then you will discover much about the character of those with whom you disagree. But always take the high road, engage in dialogue about ideas and evidence, and be motivated by the opportunity to best serve patients and the public. You will not regret it.
Although I am not a physician, I certainly recognize and have experienced the issues Dr. Krumholz is describing in my own life. Speaking uncomfortable truths often isn’t considered nice and doesn’t win popularity contests, but it is necessary for progress to be made. So I will keep covering this controversy, and I invite you to read Dr. Krumholz’s editorial and then let me know your thoughts.
Addendum: Here are comments by Ben Goldacre on Dr. Krumholz’s editorial.
Via email from Adriane Fugh-Berman, selected abstracts for talks to be given at the third annual PharmedOut conference June14-15 at Georgetown University. Please see my previous post for more information.
Regulating Medical Devices: A Historical Perspective
Suzanne Junod, PhD, FDA
In drafting what would become the 1976 Medical Device Amendment, framers of the legislation sought to avoid some of the perceived shortcomings in the Kefauver Harris Drug Amendments which had been enacted after the thalidomide disaster in 1962. In particular, they wanted to minimize adverse effects on an industry characterized by change and innovation. At that time, however, there was no formal field of biomedical engineering while entrepreneurial zeal had begun to create indisputable regulatory issues. Two of FDA’s first device “hires,” in fact, were a pair of engineers from NASA who concluded after a week on the job that conditions in the biomedical industry at that time were “appalling” and that standard engineering practices including back up systems, redundancies, and performance standards were simply non-existent. Their insights, along with some early lessons learned “the hard way,” helped determine the unique ways in which FDA came to perceive its role in regulating medical devices, ways which differed markedly from those adopted for the regulation of new drugs.
Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs: educating the public to misuse medicines
Barbara Mintzes, PhD, Therapeutics Initiative, British Columbia
Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines (DTCA) is arguably the most intensive “educational” campaign the US public receives on health issues. On average, Americans spend over 100 times as long watching TV ads about medicines as seeing a doctor each year. These ads include powerful messages about how to recognize and treat everyday and serious health problems, thresholds for care, the role and value of medicines, and expected health effects. Because the aim is to sell a medicine, this “education of a special kind” consistently supports overuse of medicines. I will use examples of recent DTCA campaigns to illustrate the gulf between the scientific evidence on treatment effects, appropriate use, and advertising messages.
Cardiovascular Devices: The Role of Evidence in the FDA Approval Process
Rita Redberg, MD, Archives of Internal Medicine and UC San Francisco
There has been a rapid increase in complexity and use of medical devices, and many of them are cardiovascular. While some of these are life-saving, some are not, and even more have unknown clinical benefit. The current state of the quality of evidence prior to FDA approval of high-risk devices, with some examples and suggestions on how to improve this process so that patients could be more assured of benefits outweighing harms will be discussed.
Left To Our Own Devices: A Surgeon’s Perspective
Amy Friedman MD, SUNY Upstate Medical University
A practical overview of the extent to which the typical clinician comprehends the regulatory pathway for medical devices will be presented. The extent to which clinicians are (or are not) familiar with the specific level of scientific data review that the medical devices they use in patients have undergone prior to gaining FDA clearance for human use will be illustrated. Two specific examples of medical devices that have been associated with significant patient harm, but were not previously recognized to be of concern will be used to illustrate the context of unknown patient safety and risk in the clinical arena.
Radiation From Medical Imaging: A Hidden Epidemic
Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, UC San Francisco
Many clinicians are unaware of the amount of radiation delivered from CT scans and other medical imaging techniques and extant data regarding increased risk of cancer from radiation exposure. This presentation will cover the long-term risks of radiation from medical imaging, legislative and quality improvement efforts around CT imaging, and present a framework for reducing inappropriate imaging.
The Failure of the DePuy ASR Hip Prosthesis: Implications for device safety initiatives
John Restaino, DPM, JD, MPH, University of South Carolina School of Pharmacy
The use of metal-on-metal bearings in total hip replacements has seen a sharp decline after a decade-long increase in their use, due to the recall of DePuy’s ASR prosthesis and the growing realization that metal-on-metal prostheses are associated not only with a high failure rates but also elevated systemic cobalt and chromium levels. In the U.S., the ASR XL total hip replacement passed through the FDA’s 510(k) clearance process via the “substantial equivalence” route wherein companies need only to show that their product is similar to a ‘predicate’ device already on the market. In 2007 the Australian National Joint Replacement Registry reported that the ASR required revisions at a rate five times the expected rate at two years. Following years of denial by DePuy that ASR implants were failing, ASR hip prostheses were recalled from the U.S. market on August 24, 2010.
The Supreme Court Strikes Back: IMS v. Sorrell – a Constitutional Right to Track Prescription Data?
Sean Flynn, JD, American University Washington College of Law
The Supreme Court ruled in IMS v. Sorrell that Vermont’s law restricting the use of prescription data to target pharmaceutical detailing to doctors violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. How broad is the right recognized? What room is left for states to control commercial access to confidential medical data for marketing purposes?
Julie Taitsman MD JD, Health and Human Services Ofﬁce of the Inspector General
The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) provides oversight for the Medicare and Medicaid programs. This presentation will offer an overview of OIG efforts, via audits, evaluations, inspections, and enforcement actions, to combat unnecessary or harmful medical care.
Exploiting Homeless Mentally Ill Patients in Drug Safety Trials
Carl Elliott, MD, PhD, University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, author of White Coat, Black Hat
For years pharmaceutical companies have paid marginalized populations to test the safety of new drugs. In recent years, however, specialized psychiatric trial sites have begun recruiting mentally patients from homeless shelters, boarding houses and recovery facilities. These subjects are often paid to test the safety of new drugs in Phase I trials, raising new ethical questions about exploitation of vulnerable populations.
PharmedOut, a Georgetown University Medical Center-based pharmaceutical marketing research project, hosts its third annual conference focusing on the misinformation and patient harm that can occur from pharmaceutical and medical device marketing.
- Rita Redberg M.D., M.Sc., Archives of Internal Medicine Editor-in-Chief; professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco
- Carl Elliott M.D. Ph.D., author, White Coat, Black Hat; professor, University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics
- Kay Dickersin Ph.D., director, Center for Clinical Trials, Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health
- Julie Taitsman M.D., J.D., chief medical officer, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Sharon Treat J.D., executive director, National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices
- Joel Lexchin M.D., professor, York University
- Donald Light Ph.D., professor, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
For more information and to register, visit the PharmedOut conference page.
WHEN: Thursday, June 14 and Friday, June 15, 2012, 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET.
Thursday morning: Marketing of antipsychotic medications and other drugs
Thursday afternoon: Potential health risks of CT scans and other medical devices
Friday morning: Legislative and regulatory updates and solutions
Friday afternoon: Informing and protecting patients: The role of industry, media, and payers
WHERE: Lohrfink Auditorium in the Hariri Building, Georgetown University, 37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20057.
In the May 2012 issue of The Scientist, Data Diving: What lies untapped beneath the surface of published clinical trial analyses could rock the world of independent review. Discusses the problem of missing data and how it affects the reliability of systematic reviews.
On the Scientific American website, a guest post by cardiologist and researcher Jalees Rehman, Open Science and Access to Medical Research. Rehman discusses the special challenges of sharing clinical research, including the need to maintain patient confidentiality and the need for independent institutions to interpret the data in an unbiased manner so that vulnerable patients are not misled or given false hope.
In the November 21, 2011 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, Time to mandate data release and independent audits for all clinical trials, by Ian Haines and George Gabor Miklos. Here are the last two paragraphs:
Medical journals and their editors have a choice — to be viewed as “an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies,” or to be beacons of transparent data processes that inform clinicians, improve patient treatment, and provide high standards on which governments, health care providers and patients can have confidence.
Medical journals should demonstrate strong leadership by mandating open access to detailed clinical trial protocols and de-identified raw study data. They should insist on independent audits of data, concomitant publication of an “accompanying abstract,” and lodgement of the data in independent databases; these three actions should be a precondition for publication. (citations omitted)
Finally, in Science Translational Medicine, Learning from Hackers: Open-Source Clinical Trials, by Adam Dunn, Richard Day, Kenneth Mandl and Enrico Coiera. Behind a paywall, but here’s a news article in Australian Life Scientist and a post on Dunn’s blog.
The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute’s mission is to fund health research that offers patients and caregivers the information they need to make medical decisions. The PCORI Board of Governors has adopted the following working definition of “patient-centered outcomes research.”
Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) helps people and their caregivers communicate and make informed health care decisions, allowing their voices to be heard in assessing the value of health care options. This research answers patient-centered questions such as:
- “Given my personal characteristics, conditions and preferences, what should I expect will happen to me?”
- “What are my options and what are the potential benefits and harms of those options?”
- “What can I do to improve the outcomes that are most important to me?”
- “How can clinicians and the care delivery systems they work in help me make the best decisions about my health and healthcare?”
To answer these questions, PCOR:
- Assesses the benefits and harms of preventive, diagnostic, therapeutic, palliative, or health delivery system interventions to inform decision making, highlighting comparisons and outcomes that matter to people;
- Is inclusive of an individual’s preferences, autonomy and needs, focusing on outcomes that people notice and care about such as survival, function, symptoms, and health related quality of life;
- Incorporates a wide variety of settings and diversity of participants to address individual differences and barriers to implementation and dissemination; and
- Investigates (or may investigate) optimizing outcomes while addressing burden to individuals, availability of services, technology, and personnel, and other stakeholder perspectives.
Listen to this inspirational speech by PCORI Board of Governors member Harlan Krumholz, at the PCORI National Patient and Stakeholder Dialogue, February 27, 2012:
I’m taking the liberty of posting the entire text of this memo from the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council. The suggested actions are particularly delightful. H/T @PLoS.
To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions
We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.
Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.
The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.
The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.
It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently. Since the Library now must change its subscriptions and since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:
1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).
2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).
3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).
4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).
5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).
6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).
7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).
8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).
9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).
Danil Makarov and colleagues have an interesting paper in the April 2012 issue of Health Affairs entitled “Appropriate And Inappropriate Imaging Rates for Prostate Cancer Go Hand In Hand By Region, As If Set By Thermostat.” Using data from the SEER-Medicare database, the researchers examined regional differences in imaging for prostate cancer patients. The SEER program of the National Cancer Institute collects information about cancer site, stage, and histology for cancer patients from sixteen geographic regions. For cancer patients who are included in the SEER database and are covered by Medicare, information is available on Medicare claims for health care services. The sample consisted of 48,148 prostate cancer patients aged 66-85 who were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 or 2005.
The patients were divided into low- and high-risk groups. According to the 2002 guidelines of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, which were in effect at the time, high-risk patients should receive imaging such as bone scans, MRIs and CT scans under certain circumstances. In low-risk patients, all imaging was considered inappropriate except CT scans for planning purposes in patients undergoing external beam radiation therapy.
The researchers found that overall rates of imaging varied among the different SEER regions. Imaging appropriateness was not uniformly worse in regions with high rates of overall imaging. Rather, regions with high overall imaging rates had higher rates of inappropriate imaging and higher rates of appropriate imaging. Men with high-risk prostate cancer were more likely to receive appropriate imaging if they lived in areas with higher rates of inappropriate imaging. The authors call this the “thermostat model” of health care utilization. Dividing the regions into quartiles according to rates of inappropriate imaging of low-risk men, in quartile 4 (highest rate of inappropriate imaging), the odds ratio for men with high-risk prostate cancer receiving appropriate imaging was 1.75, with odds ratios in the next two quartiles being 1.48 and 1.04.
The authors state that their analysis suggests that
efforts to lower inappropriate use of imaging may simultaneously lower appropriate use of imaging because the two appear to be coupled. Therefore, policy measures aimed simply at limiting inappropriate imaging in regions with high resource use could have the unintended consequence of decreasing imaging for those patients for whom such care is indicated.
Policies will need to be multifaceted to break down the thermostat-like relationship between inappropriate and appropriate health care use. Accountable care organizations will need clearly defined quality metrics for a broad range of conditions. They will also need well-designed systems to ensure that the right patients are getting the right tests and procedures — and that costs are not contained at the expense of quality. Cost-control policies must selectively educate providers to change their behavior and reduce the use of unnecessary care, while still ensuring appropriate care. Such efforts could take on many forms: profiling physicians who inappropriately overuse resources, linking payment to appropriate utilization criteria, or providing rewards and incentives to physicians and organizations that optimize resource use.
Danil V. Makarov, Rani Desai, James B. Yu, Richa Sharma, Nitya Abraham, Peter C. Albertson, Harlan M. Krumholz, David F. Penson, Cary P. Gross. Appropriate And Inappropriate Imaging Rates For Prostate Cancer Go Hand In Hand By Region, As If Set By Thermostat. Health Affairs 31:4 (2012).
Addendum 4/23/2012: see also Jeff Levin-Scherz’s post on his Managing Healthcare Costs blog.