We invest billions of dollars each year in medicines, new technologies, doctors, and hospitals — all with the goal of improving health, arguably our most prized commodity. Yet, investments in the U.S. health care system woefully underperform relative to those made in health care in other countries. For instance, the U.S. spends nearly 7–10% more of its national income on health care than other similar countries and yet life expectancy at birth remains, on average, two to three years lower.
To be sure, many factors influence health outcomes and the investments the health care system makes are only one input. But a large reason why investments in health care underperform is because we invest so much in services that are clearly low-value — i.e., offer little or no clinical benefit relative to the cost — and likely many more where the returns are gray. Investing limited health care dollars into low-value services crowds out our ability to spend on high-value services. So if we want to see better outcomes, we need to start to think like investors.
Examples of significant investments in low-value care services abound in the U.S. health care system, ranging from expensive imaging for benign medical conditions to routine pre-operative testing before low-risk surgeries like cataract surgery. Some research estimates that 42% of Medicare beneficiaries receive some form of low-value care.
Many factors contribute to our failure to disinvest from low-value services and invest more heavily in high-value services. For one thing, physicians, insurers, and patients often have limited data on the relative value of different health care services. There is an abundance of high-quality comparative effectiveness data for pharmaceuticals, largely because of the drug approval process, but there’s less data on the value of other expensive investments into health, such as doctor visits and hospitalizations. Put differently, there is no equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration for a large chunk of the health care sector, which means evidence on value in these sectors takes long to produce, in part because nobody requires that evidence to be generated. Furthermore, even when we have good evidence that a treatment or service is highly valuable, we frequently underuse it. Many medications for chronic conditions such as heart disease, e.g., statins, are routinely underused.
Physicians and businesses also generate income from performing low-value services. They may even be able to order these services themselves, effectively generating their own business. (For example, a cardiologist who performs and reads nuclear stress tests, which are frequently low value, has the ability to order these studies for his or her patient.) So reducing investments in low-value care services means spending less on doctors, hospitals, and other health care technologies. But, like pharmaceuticals, each of these entities is represented by powerful lobbyists (such as physician and hospital organizations), who will strongly oppose any steps to reduce payments.
Patients also frequently lack the information and ability to evaluate whether or not low value studies should be performed, and to hold their physicians accountable for choosing to provide low-value care. This issue is further complicated by the fact that labeling care as low-value is context dependent — advancing imaging for back pain is often not useful but sometimes it is. And moreover, some physicians may order unnecessary low-value testing because of the perceived threat of liability. Despite significant efforts to make physicians and patients aware of low-value services, we’ve observed little improvement in reigning in use.
Overinvesting in low-value services by physicians, payers, and patients leads to the underinvestment in high-value services. But affordability and timing is another critical issue that stymies investment in high-value care. Many high-value treatments take several years to yield significant health benefits. Because patients regularly change insurers, any individual insurer has less incentive to commit to investing in an expensive, high-value treatment if the return on investment could end up accruing to a competitor. Short-term budget constraints among both public and private insurers, and the fact that re-allocating resources away from low value services takes time, further limit investments in high-value services.
Consider, for example, the debate around the pricing of new Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) therapies. HCV is a chronic infectious disease that affects 3 million or more Americans. If untreated, HCV can cause liver dysfunction, liver failure, cirrhosis, and ultimately death. Until recently, the only available treatments for HCV were complex, multi-drug regimens with severe side effects and only modest efficacy. In the last half decade, however, several new HCV treatments have been developed with cure rates exceeding 90%. These new treatments typically cost $40,000-$50,000 per treatment course, but they have been shown to be cost effective over the long-term, as they can help patients avoid terminal liver disease, which is extremely expensive to treat, and reduce morbidity and mortality due to progressive liver disease.
Many physicians, experts in public health, and, of course, representatives of the pharmaceutical companies which produce these new treatments contend that these drugs should be made available to all patients with HCV who could benefit from them. But both private and public payers have raised objections over the price of these therapies, in large part because the population of patients who require treatment is so large. Payers contendthat they simply cannot afford to cover the cost of these drugs for all patients who are eligible for them and still provide coverage for other health care services that patients use. And state Medicaid agencies and small insurers frequently assert that short-term budget constraints prevent them from paying for costly, high value therapies like those for HCV.
In cases like this, it may be instructive to think about the circumstances through the lens of a portfolio manager who is choosing how to allocate investments. When given the opportunity to invest in an expensive asset, with high potential for significant future returns on investment, an investment manager would not pass it over due to lack of funds, because this capital could likely be acquired at a cost below the asset’s expected return. The manager would reduce holdings in investments with lower expected returns and re-allocate these funds into more promising investments. If the investment were valuable enough, the manager might even find ways to raise additional capital to invest in this asset.
In health care, this means at least two things: (1) wrestling with the factors that continue to promote use of low-value services (like lack of information and financial incentives for patients, and inappropriately structured financial incentives for physicians) and (2) recognizing that high-value investments often require large financial outlays today that ultimately reap future benefits.
Aside from reducing the use of low-value services, one potential solution is to identify and develop sources of long-term financing for high-value services. Mortgages exist to spread the costs of a home or a car out over a longer period of time, thereby allowing people to buy a product that they otherwise could not afford. Similar approaches could be used to help finance high-value health care investments that otherwise would be unaffordable.
For both public and private insurers, a long-term view should be feasible. State governments already rely heavily on capital markets to finance infrastructure investments and it’s quite possible that the returns on these investments fall below high-value health care investments like HCV drugs. Private insurers could also access private capital markets and design contracts with other insurers that allow them to partake in some of the long-term benefit of early high-value care when individuals switch between plans. For instance, an insurer that covers HCV therapy for an individual could, in theory, be compensated by future insurers, even Medicare, that treat that patient and benefit from that patient already being cured of HCV.
Ultimately, reducing investments in low-value care will require coordinated action from many actors. Patients and providers need more robust and up-to-date information on the value of different services. Insurers must look hard at the services they cover and discourage utilization of low-value services and encourage use of high-value services, even those that are high cost. Innovators developing new drugs, devices, and procedures should look beyond profits alone and incorporate the need to add value into their investments. And policymakers must create incentives for all of the above to consider value when making decisions about how to invest their health care dollars.
These actions are important because not only does underinvesting in high-value services make them less accessible, it may also make them less available in the future. Many expensive high-value treatments — like HCV therapies, new cancer treatments, and gene therapies — are the product of extensive research and development, which are undertaken because the expected returns are thought to exceed the known costs. A failure to reduce investments in low-value care and reinvest these resources in high-value therapies will reduce incentives to develop future therapies that can deliver significant value to patients.