There is a cacophony of voices in the media talking about healthcare reform, but it’s more heat than light. That why Atul Gawande’s most recent article in The New Yorker is so important. Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital general and endocrine surgeon Gawande examines how the trend to prolonging life is one of the reasons behind soaring healthcare costs.
According to Dr. Gawande in Letting Go, “Twenty-five percent of all Medicare spending is for the five percent of patients who are in the final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months which is of little apparent benefit. Medical spending for a breast-cancer survivor, for example, averaged an estimated $54,000 in 2003, the vast majority of it for the initial diagnostic testing, surgery, and, where necessary, radiation and chemotherapy. For a patient with a fatal version of the disease, though, the cost curve is U-shaped, rising again toward the end – to an average of $63,000 during the last six months of life with incurable breast cancer.
The big question Gawande poses is thus: What are we getting in return? “Patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator,” Dr. Gawande continues, “given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care, had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression.”
Dr. Gawande notes that in one study, “Researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. Surprisingly, they found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”
In one case Dr. Gawande describes, “Aetna decided to let a group of policy-holders with a life expectancy of less than one year receive hospice services without forgoing other treatments. A patient like Sara Monopoli (who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 34) could continue to try chemotherapy and radiation, and go to the hospital when she wished – but also have a hospice team at home focusing on what she needed for the best possible life now and for that morning when she might wake up unable to breathe. A two-year study of this ‘concurrent care’ program found that enrolled patients were more likely to use hospice: the figure leaped from 26 percent to 70 percent. That was no surprise, since they weren’t forced to give up anything. The surprising result was that they did give up things. They visited the emergency room almost half as often as the control patients did. Their use of hospitals and I.C.U.s dropped by more than two-thirds. Overall costs fell by almost a quarter.”
Tags: Aetna, Atul Gawande, Brigham and Women's Hospital, chemotherapy, endocrine surgery, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, healthcare system, hospice care, life expectancy, Medicare, medicine, oncologists, radiation, Sara Monopoli