This is a somewhat unusual post.
I do not normally dwell on personal anecdotes or experiences – but this one might be relevant, and it is absolutely true.
About 7 or 8 years ago (we had just published our book Trick or Treatment), I was invited to a meeting of health insurers. Not just any old meeting, but a top-notch conference where many of the world’s most influential executives of large insurance companies were gathered. It took place in one of the most luxurious hotels of Istanbul. The most prominent speaker was the brother of France’s president Sarkozy (who flew in by helicopter and came with two body-guards). He began his lecture by stating “You of course all know me because I have a famous sister in law.”
I did not have such a witty opening phrase for my talk. My task was to review the evidence for and against the major alternative therapies (at the time, I did such lectures regularly). My audience of about 300 people listened politely to what I had to say and, during, question time, they made some relevant comments. Altogether, it was a good and well-received lecture.
But the interesting bit came later.
Over coffee, I was surrounded by people who came to me and said something like this: “We know the evidence, of course, and we know how flimsy it is, particularly for homeopathy. But we still pay for it, because the competition does it too. We cannot be seen to offer less than they do. This is purely a commercial decision about being seen to be competitive.”
Such honesty came as a surprise to me. I had expected that they were well-informed about the evidence; after all, they were in charge of huge companies selling health insurances. Not knowing about the evidence would have been negligent. But I had not expected they would volunteer their motives quite so openly. I got the impression that they were trying to justify their nonsensical actions without seeming irrational. In a way, they seemed to say: ‘Such treatments might not work for the patient, but they do work for us’.
I remember suggesting to some of these executives that they could even be more competitive, progressive and ethical by telling their customers that they took better care of their money that the competition by NOT paying for ineffective treatments. Such remarks resulted in blank faces or vague smiles. I felt my audience had not really understood the opportunity. Being honest, transparent and evidence-based was evidently not understood as a viable marketing tool.
As I said, this was almost a decade ago
… lots has happened since.
I wonder whether the message might be more attractive today.
Chiropractors (and other alternative practitioners) tend to treat their patients for unnecessarily long periods of time. This, of course, costs money, and even if the treatment in question ever was indicated (which, according to the best evidence, is more than doubtful), this phenomenon would significantly inflate healthcare expenditure.
This sounds perfectly logical to me, but is there any evidence for it? Yes, there is!
The WSJ recently reported that over 80% of the money that Medicare paid to US chiropractors in 2013 went for medically unnecessary procedures. The federal insurance program for senior citizens spent roughly $359 million on unnecessary chiropractic care that year, a review by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) found.
The OIG report was based on a random sample of Medicare spending for 105 chiropractic services in 2013. It included bills submitted to CMS through June 2014. Medicare audit contractors reviewed medical records for patients to determine whether treatment was medically necessary. The OIG called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to tighten oversight of the payments, noting its analysis was one of several in recent years to find questionable Medicare spending on chiropractic care. “Unless CMS implements strong controls, it is likely to continue to make improper payments to chiropractors,” the OIG said.
Medicare should determine whether there should be a cut-off in visits, the OIG said. Medicare does not pay for “supportive” care, or maintenance therapy. Patients who received more than a dozen treatments are more likely to get medically unnecessary care, the OIG found, and all chiropractic care after the first 30 treatment sessions was unnecessary, the review found. However, a spokesperson for US chiropractors disagreed: “Every patient is different,” he said. “Some patients may require two visits; some may require more.”
I have repeatedly written about the fact that chiropractic is not nearly as cost-effective as chiropractors want us to believe (see for instance here and here). It seems that this evidence is being systematically ignored by them; in fact, the evidence gets in the way of their aim – which often is not to help patients but to maximise their cash-flow.
According to Wikipedia, Swiss state insurance funding of homeopathy and four other alternative therapies had been withdrawn after a review in 2005, and a 2009 referendum vote called for state backed health insurance to once more pay for these therapies. In 2012 the Swiss government reinstated them for a trial period until 2017, pending an independent investigation of the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the therapies. The rules for the registration of homeopathic remedies without a concrete field of application are more liberal in Switzerland than they are in member countries of the EU. For homeopathic medicines based on well-known low-risk substances, Swissmedic, the regulatory authority, offers inexpensive registration by means of a simplified electronic registration procedure.
Several weeks ago, I have commented on the remarkable position of alternative medicine in Switzerland. Now this website offers further information specifically on homeopathy in Switzerland:
According to a report jointly issued by the Swiss Federal Health Office and the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the annual expenses for homeopathic treatments and medications in Switzerland amount to roughly CHF 50 million and CHF 31 million, respectively. These numbers seem impressive, particularly if we consider how little each homeopathic remedy costs and how ineffective it is.
But the argument that homeopathy somehow defies scientific testing does not seem to die. For instance, SantéSuisse, the umbrella organisation of health insurers, argues that standardised methods used to test conventional treatments cannot be applied to homeopathy. “It would be unfair to homeopathy if we borrowed the methodologies from conventional therapeutic options when evaluating its effectiveness. The potential risk is that these systematic and internationally accepted methods of biomedical science go against the underlying principles of homeopathy,” said SantéSuisse spokesman Christophe Kämpf. I am afraid, he is talking complete tosh – and he should, of course, know better.
The Swiss Federal Health Office admitted in its press release at the end of March that “no evidence has so far been found to prove that complementary and alternative therapies”, including homeopathy, meet the standard criteria for “effectiveness, appropriateness, and costs.” And a Swiss health office spokesman, Daniel Dauwalder, explained that the decision “reflected the will of the people” in a 2009 referendum. “The health insurance system will cover the cost of alternative therapies according to the principle of trust,” Dauwalder explained. He added that, if the standards of effectiveness, suitability and economy are called into question, SantéSuisse have the right to deny payment.
The core of the issue centres on the questions
- How to ensure that the physical conditions of patients will not be compromised by unqualified, self-proclaimed clinicians?
- How can health insurers deal with the potential challenges?
The truth is, alternative treatments will not be unconditionally covered by the basic insurance policies which every Swiss resident must have. Only the costs of treatments administered by certified medical doctors will be considered. Otherwise, the costs incurred can only be reimbursed, if the person insured has purchased supplementary health coverage.
END OF QUOTE
That, however, does not mean that only doctors can practice homeopathy in Switzerland. Lay-homeopaths do exist in the form of Heilpraktiker. While it is true that the national health insurance only covers the treatment by medical doctors, some private health insurances also cover homeopathy by Heilpraktiker.
All this is very different from what some enthusiasts report about homeopathy in Switzerland. Probably the best example for someone obscuring the truth is (yet again) Dana Ullman who stated that “the Swiss government has determined that the very small doses commonly used in homeopathic medicine are both effective and cost-effective.” Little wonder, I might add, because Dana Ullman also keeps on referring to “a remarkable report on homeopathic medicine conducted by and for the government of Switzerland”. He does so despite having been told over and over again that the report in question is firstly utterly unreliable and secondly not by the Swiss government.
Why this odd insistence on disseminating wrong information? Is it because it is good for business, or because homeopaths are not capable of learning (otherwise they would not be homeopaths), or both?
The Subject of the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ has recently been the topic of one of my blog-posts. In Germany, it has been a taboo for decades, but now the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ (FAZ) have courageously addressed the problem. In today’s article, the FAZ reports that, Josef Hecken, the chair of the an organisation called ‘Selbstverwaltung im Gesundheitswesen’ (self-administration in healthcare), demands that “health-insurers should be forbidden to pay for treatments that are not supported by evidence.” Hecken, is also the chair of the Gemeinsamen Bundesausschusses, an umbrella organisation of doctors, insurers and hospitals which determines which services are paid for and which not. He stated that even paying for homeopathy out of your own pocket when treating diseases like cancer must be forbidden and stressed that “this is not about well-being but human lives.”
Hecken’s views are partly supported by Rudolf Henke, the chair of both a German doctor’s union and of the Marburger Bund, a union of hospitals: “the regulations regarding the Heilpraktiker have to be re-considered entirely… I do not believe it to be acceptable that Heilpraktiker are able to treat cancer patients.”
These remarks relate to the deaths that recently occurred in a clinic led by a Heilpraktiker. About two thirds of all German health insurers seem to pay for consultations with a Heilpraktiker. Vis a vis the fact that most of their treatments are not evidence-based, this situation seems intolerable and deeply unethical.
Hecken’s stance seems clear, rational and, in view of the popularity of homeopathy in Germany, even courageous: “The government should charge the ‘Gemeinsamen Bundesausschuss’ or another organisation with the task of conducting a meta-analysis on the evidence of homeopathy and then draw the appropriate conclusions… We have reached a point where we need a public discussion, and I am prepared to take the flack.”
Several investigations have suggested that chiropractic care can be cost-effective. A recent review of 25 studies, for instance, concluded that cost comparison studies suggest that health care costs were generally lower among patients whose spine pain was managed with chiropractic care. However, its authors cautioned that the studies reviewed had many methodological limitations. Better research is needed to determine if these differences in health care costs were attributable to the type of HCP managing their care.
Better research might come from the US ‘Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ (CMS); they conduced a two-year demonstration of expanded Medicare coverage for chiropractic services in the treatment of beneficiaries with neuromusculoskeletal (NMS) conditions affecting the back, limbs, neck, or head.
The demonstration was conducted in 2005–2007 in selected counties of Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia and the entire states of Maine and New Mexico. Medicare claims were compiled for the preceding year and two demonstration years for the demonstration areas and matched comparison areas. The impact of the demonstration was analyzed through multivariate regression analysis with a difference-in-difference framework.
Expanded coverage increased Medicare expenditures by $50 million or 28.5% in users of chiropractic services and by $114 million or 10.4% in all patients treated for NMS conditions in demonstration areas during the two-year period. Results varied widely among demonstration areas ranging from increased costs per user of $485 in Northern Illinois and Chicago counties to decreases in costs per user of $59 in New Mexico and $178 in Scott County, Iowa.
The authors concluded that the demonstration did not assess possible decreases in costs to other insurers, out-of-pocket payments by patients, the need for and costs of pain medications, or longer term clinical benefits such as avoidance of orthopedic surgical procedures beyond the two-year period of the demonstration. It is possible that other payers or beneficiaries saved money during the demonstration while costs to Medicare were increased.
In view of such results, I believe chiropractors should stop claiming that chiropractic care is cost-effective.
If my health insurance pays for this treatment, it must be scientifically tested and proven. The ‘appeal to authority’ is powerful indeed, and I imagine that many consumers fall for this argument. But it is a fallacy! Health insurances are misinforming us for commercial benefit.
In 2007, I published an analysis of German health insurance companies’ policies regarding bogus treatments (MMW 2006, 149: 55-56 [the paper is in German and unfortunately not Medline-listed]). For this purpose, I had selected three popular alternative modalities: Bach flower remedies, Schuessler salts, and kinesiology all of which are, of course, not supported by sound evidence nor by biological plausibility. What emerged from this evaluation was shocking: of the 13 companies analysed, 9 paid for Bach flower remedies, 7 for kinesiology and 9 for Schuessler salts.
If you now think ‘ah yes, those Germans are obsessed with alternative medicine’, think again. The situation in most other countries is not much better; health insurances go for alternative medicine as though there is no tomorrow. A review from the US concluded that the number of people using CAM insurance benefits was substantial; the effect on insurance expenditures was modest. Because the long-term trajectory of CAM cost under third-party payment is unknown, utilization of these services should be followed. And apparently this is by no means confined to human health; recently someone tweeted that he had a very hard time finding a pet-insurance which did not offer to cover woo.
A few years after the above-mentioned publication, I was invited to speak at an international meeting of health insurers. I told the delegates in no uncertain terms that most of what they were offering to their clients in terms of alternative medicine was either unproven or disproven. There was stunned silence during the official discussion period, and I asked myself whether I had impolitely embarrassed my hosts. Then came the tea break, and one high-level representative of an insurance company after the other came to me to chat. Essentially, they all said: “We are well aware of the facts and the evidence you reviewed in your lecture; most of these treatments are useless, of course. But we have to offer them to our customers because we need to be competitive.”
In other words, health insurers, who normally are keen to keep their costs down, do not mind to pay for treatments which they know are ineffective simply because they use it as some sort of an advertising gimmick. In doing so they say or imply that these treatments do work. I think this is not just wrong and short-sighted, it is unethical and it significantly contributes to the ‘sea of misinformation’.