It might be easy to conclude that anyone who wants to reduce the role of the profit-motive in healthcare must be either an extremist or a fool. Upon reflection, however, it becomes clear that we are experiencing an era of overtreatment in healthcare (see, for example, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch’s piece here) and one area where it is particularly apparent is in the management of chronic pain. While there are likely many causes of overtreatment, one of them surely is the profit-motive that occurs within a fee-for-service model of reimbursement.
In the last few posts (dated 12-22-13 & 12-29-13), we have been exploring the role that the profit-motive plays in the generation of recommendations for treatment. We have seen that in a fee-for-service model of reimbursement the treatment of chronic pain can constitute a ‘perfect storm’ for overtreatment (i.e., providing an overabundance of care that has a low likelihood of effectiveness). Let’s review how it might play out.
How overtreatment occurs in chronic pain management
Patients with chronic pain are commonly distressed. This distress can lead to a willingness to try any number of medications and procedures, sometimes even repeating previously failed treatments over the years. Their healthcare providers lack any incentive to discourage such an overabundance of care, even if therapies have little chance for success. Rather, because of the fee-for-service system of reimbursement, they are in fact incentivized to make the recommendations. Indeed, the more care they recommend, the more they are likely to provide, and the more care they provide the more money they make.
It’s not that such providers are making recommendations solely on the basis of what’s in their financial best interests. As healthcare providers, they are charged to work in the best interests of the patient as well. They make recommendations and provide care in the ways they do because it is possible that such care might be helpful. If asked, they’d say that they see patients helped everyday by the medications or interventions or surgeries they provide. And it would be true.
Most any therapy can be helpful. Any clinician can point to patients for whom any numbers of the common available therapies have been helpful. For most patients and providers, this justification is good enough. If a particular therapy has been helpful in the past for Mr. Smith, why not try it for Ms. Jones? Besides, Ms. Jones has chronic pain, likely for years, and is in distress and seeking care, wanting to try something. Ms. Jones’ provider can thus recommend the therapy with a clean conscience. It’s what the patient wants and it’s possible that it will be effective.
Notice that the bar to justify a treatment recommendation gets set pretty low. A recommendation for a particular therapy seems reasonable if there’s a possibility of success. Both the patient and the provider seem satisfied to move forward with it, as long as it’s possible that it will be helpful. No one in this interaction seems to require a higher degree of justification, such as some degree of probability that a therapy will be effective. The possibility of effectiveness, rather than then probability of effectiveness, is good enough.
This all-too-common justification for treatment recommendations leads to overtreatment because it masks the profit-motive that underlies it. As we saw in our initial post, the justification only seems reasonable when it occurs within the context of a fee-for-service reimbursement system. In other words, providers would require a higher level of justification, if they themselves were the payer of the fee for the therapy, rather than the receiver of the fee. In a capitated system, for example, where providers stand to lose money rather than gain money when providing care, they might inquire more fully into how likely a given treatment will be effective before proceeding, rather than simply asking whether it might be effective. In contrast, in a fee-for-service system of reimbursement, there is no incentive to have a higher criterion for the care we deliver.
This state of affairs leads to scenarios like those of patients I see everyday. Working in chronic pain rehabilitation, we tend to evaluate patients after they have exhausted countless pharmacological, interventional, and surgical options – no matter how remotely likely they were to have been effective. The typical patient we see is in their forties or fifties and has had chronic pain for more than five years. They have been managed on opioids for most of these years. As a consequence, by the time they get referred to us, our patients have trialed a number of opioids and have become tolerant to even very high doses. They typically have been to two or more interventional pain clinics, where over the years they have had ten to twenty spinal injections and have had three or four repeated radiofrequency neuroablations. They commonly have had three or more spine surgeries.
I am not exaggerating.
They often tell me that I am the first person who has ever told them that they have chronic pain. I sometimes find it difficult to believe. I think what they must mean is that I was the first person to tell them in a way that they really understood – that “chronic” really means chronic, i.e., incurable. What they tell me, though, is that all other providers have tended to leave them with the impression that, while their pain has been long-lasting, it’s only a matter of finding the right procedure and they can be cured. When I ask, they tell me that no provider has ever sat them down and had a serious discussion of exactly how unlikely such a cure really is. Instead, what appears to happen is that they have undergone countless procedures and therapies over the years with very little chance of serious success. What it appears is that they have been overtreated.
Overtreatment in chronic pain management is exceptionally common. It is not just my impression. It’s been shown in systematic ways that the rates of use of opioids, interventional procedures, and spine surgeries have grown exponentially over the last few decades (Deyo, et al., 2009; Manchikanti, Pampati, et al., 2010).
What can healthcare providers do?
The first thing any provider can do is to decide whether this state of affairs is a problem or not.
I suspect that some providers in chronic pain management won’t think it is problematic at all. Spine surgeons and interventional pain providers profit greatly from the current fee-for-service practice patterns (Medical Group Management Association, 2011). Recurrent studies over the years show that their routine care for pain disorders persistently fail to follow established guidelines for common conditions, such as back pain. Instead of obtaining care that professional organizations agree is the most effective, patients continue to obtain MRI or CT scans, interventional procedures, and spine surgeries at increasingly high rates (Deyo & Mirza, 2006; Deyo, et al., 2009; Hrudey, 1991; Ivanova, et al., 2011; Mafi, et al., 2013; Pham, et al., 2009). Such less than optimal tests and procedures constitute some of the most over-utilized assessments and treatments in our healthcare system.
Thought leaders in the field of interventional pain management advocate against policy changes that encourage the use of empirically supported treatments (Manchikanti, Falco, et al., 2010). Organizations of both spine surgeons and interventional pain providers have also advocated against the Affordable Care Act and its provisions to encourage the use of empirically effective treatments (see, for example, Branch & Rao, 2009; Manchikanti, et al., 2011).
Many of us, however, in chronic pain management consider overtreatment unacceptable and are committed to delivering healthcare based on what’s most effective. Indeed, it is a moral obligation. Whether done out of a business practice or ignorance or both, it is simply wrong to withhold the most effective therapy from patients or to recommend tests and procedures that lie outside of treatment guidelines, assuming that guideline based treatments have not already been tried.
If your patient had cancer, you wouldn’t want him or her to pursue less effective treatments before pursuing more effective treatments. But, this is exactly the scenario of care that most chronic pain patients get recommended today in our field.
These points bring us to the next thing that providers can do to reduce profit-motive and overtreatment in chronic pain management.
Learn about established treatment guidelines
The American Pain Society has developed and published a number of treatment guidelines. A brief list of them can be found here.
As a profession, we are called to first provide the most effective care to our patients. To do so, we first need to know what these therapies are. We are therefore obligated to know these therapies and to provide them or refer accordingly.
Take the time to teach patients about what therapies are most effective
It takes time to teach patients why orthopedic treatments for chronic pain, such as spine surgeries and interventional procedures, are commonly ineffective. The prevailing zeitgeist remains that chronic pain is an orthopedic condition. Initially, it often doesn’t make sense to patients why rehabilitation therapies are more effective.
A common complaint among providers is that it takes too much time to explain it to patients and so often ‘the path of least resistance’ is to refer them to orthopedic care that lies outside the treatment guidelines (see, for example, this problem as discussed by DeNoon in the Harvard Health Blog).
Another version of the profit-motive, however, underlies this complaint. It only takes too much time to explain to patients important aspects of their care if you are attempting to see as many patients as possible as a means to increase productivity reimbursement.
If, however, we take our calling as a profession as the primary value, and place business as a secondary value, then the practice of taking time to explain to patients the nature of their condition and the reasons why they should pursue guideline based care becomes our moral obligation. It’s not inefficient. It is not a nuisance or an inconvenience. It’s our job.
We have the opportunity everyday – often multiple times daily – to do our job and explain to patients the following: chronic pain syndromes are a nervous system problem and not an orthopedic problem; and chronic pain syndromes are most effectively treated with chronic pain rehabilitation programs, not narcotics, spine surgeries, and interventional procedures.
To help in these discussions, refer patients and their families to the Institute for Chronic Pain and other resources. Indeed, keep a list of reputable websites and blogs to provide to patients so they can continue to educate themselves.
Support policies and organizations that encourage effective care over profitable care
Support organizations such as the following:
- Institute for Chronic Pain
- Body in Mind
- Foundation for Ethics in Pain Care
- International Association for the Study of Pain
If you find important information, pass it on to all of those in your network. (Indeed, please pass this blog post on to all in your network.)
Also, if you are an American healthcare provider, support policies and laws, such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), that encourage experimentation with getting away from the fee-for-service reimbursement system. For example, in some minimal ways, the ACA contains policies that experiment with moving away from paying provider organizations based solely on the quantity of patients they see and quantity of tests and procedures they perform; instead, it begins to experiment with paying provider organizations based on the quality of their performance in keeping people well. The jury remains out, of course, whether such projects will prove fruitful, but their intention is an admirable attempt to reduce the profit-motive in healthcare and subsequently reduce overtreatment.
Suggested reading: Unnecessary care: Are doctors in denial and is the profit motive to blame?
Branch, C. & Rao, R. (July 28, 2009). Letter to Honorable Speaker Pelosi. Retrieved from http://www.spine.org/Documents/NASSHealthCareReformLetterPelosi.pdf
DeNoon, D. (July 31, 2013). Back pain often overdiagnosed and overtreated. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/back-pain-often-overdiagnosed-and-overtreated-201307316546
Deyo, R. A. & Mirza, S. K. (2006). Trends and variations in the use of spine surgery. Clinical Orthopedics 433, 139-146.
Deyo, R. A., Mirza, S. K., Turner, J. A., & Martin, B. I. (2009). Overtreating back pain: Time to back off? Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 22(1), 62-68. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2009.01.080102
Hrudey, W. P. (1991). Overdiagnosis and overtreatment in low back pain. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 1(4), 303-312.
Ivanova, J. I., Birnbaum, H. G., Schiller, M., Kantor, E., Johnstone, B. M., & Swindle, R. (2011). Real-world practice patterns, health-care utilization, and costs in patients with low back pain: The long road to guideline-concordant care. Spine Journal, 11(7), 622-632.
Mafi, J. N., McCarthy, E. P., Davis, R. B., & Landon, B. E. (2013). Worsening trends in the management and treatment of back pain. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(17), 1573-1581. doi: 10/1001/jamainternmed.2013.8992
Manchikanti, L., Caraway, D., Parr, A. T., Fellows, B., & Hirsch, J. A. (2011). Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: Reforming the healthcare reform for the new decade. Pain Physician, 14, E35-E67. Want to do away with the measures that change fee-for-service to reimbursement systems that pay for effectiveness
Manchikanti, L., Falco, F., Parr, A. T., Boswell, B., & Hirsch, J. A. (2010). Facts, fallacies, and politics of comparative effectiveness research: Part I: Basic considerations. Pain Physician, 10, E23-E54.
Manchikanti, L., Pampati, V., Singh, V., Boswell, B., Smith, H. S., & Hirsch, J. A. (2010). Explosive growth of facet joint injections in the Medicare population in the United States: A comparative evaluation of 1997, 2002, and 2006 data. BMC Health Services Research, 10, 84. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-10-84
Medical Group Management Association. (2011). Physician Compensation and Production Survey 2011 Report Based on 2010 Data. Washington DC: Medical Group Management Association.
Pham, H. H., Landon, B. E., Reschovsky, J. D., Wu, B., Schrag, D. (2009). Rapidity and modality of imaging in acute low back pain in elderly patients. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(10), 972-981. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2009.78
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Date of last modification: 1-5-2014