Before long, virtually all doctors will be practicing only the kind of medicine the health plans cover. After all, most doctors like to get paid for what they do. If that’s not incentive enough, the Obama administration has a medical malpractice carrot and stick it wants to try out. If doctors follow protocols and guidelines developed by committees of experts, they will be immune from lawsuits. If they don’t, they will have to take their chances.
Don’t you want your doctor's advice to be based on scientific evidence? Don’t you want her to follow guidelines that have been written by reputable scholars who have surveyed all the relevant literature?
So what’s not to like? A lot, it turns out.
Think about the calendar you keep on your laptop or your cell phone. It’s probably an invaluable aide to help you organize your life. Now suppose that instead of being your servant, the calendar becomes your master. What if there were a rule that says you can’t do anything during the week unless it is on the calendar by Sunday. Call this “calendar-based scheduling.” Instead of being an aide, the calendar would quickly become an oppressive barrier to your freedom of action.
The same principle applies in medicine. Protocols and guidelines can be helpful or harmful, depending on how they are used. And there are several reasons why such guidelines — in the wrong hands — can reduce the quality of care you receive.
First, in most areas of medicine, there are no treatment guidelines; and where there are, they are often unreliable, conflicting and incomplete. Even for something as straightforward as deciding when women should get mammograms there is conflicting advice. (See here, here, here and here.) If insurers have to choose among conflicting and inconsistent guidelines, which ones do you think they will choose? The ones that cost them less money, of course.
Second, guidelines inevitably focus on some parameters and ignore others – often because of inconsistent and incomplete information. When doctors respond only to the metrics on which they are paid – while ignoring other factors – the patient may be the loser. In education, teachers all too often “teach to the test,” trying to get their students to perform well on what is being measured to the exclusion of everything else we want students to know. Do you want doctors to practice medicine to the test? When the Veteran’s Administration began grading itself, it scored well on metrics that were measured and poorly on the ones that weren’t measured.
Third, even where there are well established and widely accepted guidelines, they are inevitably written for the average patient. But suppose you are not average. Is your doctor free to step outside the protocols and give you care based on her training, knowledge and experience? Or will she be pressured to stick to the cookbook, regardless of how the patient fares? Health plans always say that doctors are free to step outside the guidelines if they have good reason for doing so. But if the doctor is forced to fill out multiple forms and jump through lots of hoops, many will conform to the guidelines even if that's bad for you.
Finally, the whole idea behind guidelines and protocols is that it is appropriate to treat patients with similar conditions the same way. But individuals are individuals. They don't always respond to treatments the same way. For substance abuse, for example, there apparently is no such thing as a protocol that works for diverse groups of patients.
Like electronic medical records and computerized protocols, evidence-based guidelines could be a boon to medical practice, helping doctors do their jobs. But when these tools substitute for the doctors’ judgments, patients are likely to be the losers.