Evidence-Based Medicine: Is American medical care based on science or politics?

Selected Interviews from the Coastal Research Group’s Studentdoctor.net website.

This interview was conducted by William H. Burnett and first appeared 27 September, 2009.

Alfred O. Berg, MD, MPH, is a professor at the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.  He is board certified in Family Medicine and General Preventive Medicine and Public Health.

Alfred O. Berg, MD; University of Washington, Seattle
Alfred O. Berg, MD; University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Berg’s research has focused on clinical epidemiology in primary care settings.  He has served as chairman of the United States Preventive Services Task Force, co-chair of the otitis media panel convened by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, chair of the CDC STD Treatment Guidelines panel, member of the AMA/CDC panel producing Guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services, member of the Institute of Medicine’s Immunization Safety Review Committee, and chair of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

He currently chairs the CDC’s panel on Evaluation of Genomic Applications in Practice and Prevention.

He recently spoke with the Student Doctor Network about evidence-based medicine and health care reform.

You have been associated with the concept of “evidence-based medicine [EBM]”. Would you explain the term, and its relevance to the current debate on health care and health insurance reform?

The average person imagines that medicine has always been “evidence-based”, but there is quite a difference between the older ways of thinking about evidence and the systematic approach to evidence that is now considered the state of the art.

In the past, if you were a medical student, resident, or practicing physician trying to find answers to a specific problem, and your attending or your consulting physician said “this is your answer” you assumed it to be true.

What has changed is that we now ask who or what is the authority for the evidence. We are now more systematic about deciding when something is authoritative.

The most important characteristic about the new approach is that the evidence is scrutinized in standard ways, leading to more accountable and transparent clinical recommendations.

Unfortunately much of current medical practice still uses the “it’s true if I say so” approach, so a lot of medical practice is not evidence-based by current standards.

EBM is one of the “under the radar” features of the current health care reform debate. Would you see it as a major change, if it ends up in any form of the final legislation?

EBM could have a huge impact on reform. It could lead to more transparent and accountable practice, and would change the ways things are done now.

One of the likely outcomes of health care reform, in whatever final form the legislation takes, is that clinical practices and outcomes will be monitored and behaviors that depart from evidence-based standards of care will not be acceptable.

Over time, evidence-based practice has potential to reduce the huge variations in procedures and interventions we have now when there are no medical reasons for the differences.

You have been a member of and chaired advisory bodies on EBM for both the Institute of Medicine [IOM] and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] over the past two decades.  How did you come to be involved with these advisory bodies?

My interest began as a fellow in the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program where I first learned basic epidemiology, health services, and biostatistics.  I made some connections with one of the DHHS committees that existed in the late 1980s, in which I had expressed skepticism whether a guideline released for treating asthma was supported by the published evidence – there was too much expert opinion.

In 1989 I was appointed to the Preventive Services Task Force, my first real assignment in this area. I was then asked to chair the Centers for Disease Control committee that published the 1993 Sexually Transmitted Disease guidelines, and co-chaired a committee for the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research on otitis media with effusion.  I have gone on to other committees on vaccine safety, genetic testing, post-traumatic stress disorder, and genetic tests, sponsored by various agencies.

What qualifications led to your appointments to such a diverse group of committees?

Being a generalist on clinical topics and a specialist in critical appraisal and systematic review has led me to be involved in a variety of clinical questions. As a non-specialist on any given clinical topic, I do not come into the process with preconceptions about what our conclusions should be.

And, because of the experience in reviewing the basis of evidence in dissimilar clinical areas, I have developed some general expertise at managing the committee processes that are designed to reach clinical and research conclusions.

You are a member of the Institute of Medicine.  What does it do?

It is an organization of around 1,700 elected members, part of the National Academy of Sciences which was chartered by Congress during President Lincoln’s administration, although the IOM formally began just in 1970. It receives no direct federal appropriation, but does accept contracts from federal agencies when an agency wants answers that are unbiased and evidence-based.

For example, the VA commissioned the IOM to do a study to advise them what interventions work in treating PSTD — a controversial topic where some might have questioned the conclusions if the VA had done the study on their own.  The agency negotiates the contract with the IOM, but once the project begins the IOM works independently. The IOM accepts broad input but its internal processes are confidential. The IOM also takes extraordinary steps to limit conflict of interest on its committees so that the conclusions are not tainted.

How does one determine what kinds of medical interventions are “evidence-based” and what kinds are not?

Medical students, residents, and physicians need to be moving towards asking that question more often. I have become wary of what I call the “journal club approach” to medicine where a single article is discussed hoping that it might be a “silver bullet” that will change practice. From where did the article come? What were the clinical questions asked? Are the questions relevant to my own practice?  Where does this fit in the body of evidence already available?

Medical schools are beginning to do a good job of teaching how to evaluate individual studies, but there is a parallel list of questions on how to evaluate evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. I believe this skill is as important as being able to evaluate a single research article.

How much of a problem are health care disparities in your opinion?

The folks at Dartmouth have shown how the same condition is managed in different ways at different costs in different parts of the country, when there is no apparent reason for difference.  If we were following evidence-based practice more uniformly, a patient with the same characteristics would be managed the same way in rural Texas as in New York City.

New Yorker article (”The Cost Conundrum“) looking at the highest Medicare costs in the U.S. showed that over-treating and over-diagnosing have negative consequences. If one wants to maximize health, the “sweet spot” is when you use only as much health care as you need. When you use more medical services than you need it can lead to poorer outcomes.

If we have high standards for evidence-based practice, we could decrease costs and make health care more rational, regardless of who you are, who your doctor is, or where you are.

How do you assess President Obama’s health care reform efforts?

I believe his heart is in the right place. What I think he is finding is that EBM is important. He is also finding thatscience is not what is driving the system, but rather the economic benefits enjoyed by lots of people in the healthcare industry. EBM threatens the profits of some very powerful special interests. I believe that all the special interests are willing to bend on some issues, but their second best position tends to be keeping the status quo.

I hope the public will figure out that they are getting neither good value nor good health from its money, and we’ll finally be able to move ahead.  EBM has potential to help in that process.

Are there models in other countries of how EBM would work?

Much of the rest of the developed world is ahead of us on EBM. In many countries, there is a process for deciding when there is enough evidence about an intervention’s efficacy to make a product or intervention available to the public at public expense. Interventions considered experimental or not achieving a level of confidence in the outcome are generally not paid for with public funds. The U.S. is quite unique in that evidence of an intervention’s proven effects can take a back seat to other concerns.

Can you employ EBM techniques to determine if less invasive therapies work, such as those advanced by, for example, holistic health practitioners?

Of course. We should move toward a single standard of evidence that is blind to the kind of therapy being promoted.  We should be able to objectively assess the balance of benefits and harms of any test or intervention, whether performed by an MD or a naturopath.

How do you see the future widespread use of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) interfacing with the idea of EBM and federal funding of evidence based preventive care?

That is something I’m working on at the moment. One of the issues of EHRs is the proliferation of products that cannot talk with each other. The business incentives are not aligned to make this easy. The feds have been trying to come up with a list of common data elements, but EHR vendors are dragging their feet. At the University of Washington, we would like to develop ways to use EHRs across practices for disease management and prevention within the practice and for collaborative research regardless of the particular EHR being employed.

What are things do you believe have a chance of going right?

President Obama has made it clear that he is interested in science and objectivity. I have faith that in the long run being open and transparent about evidence supporting medical practice will result in desirable change. There are many examples of where the EBM approach has made a difference in the outcomes of patients and where it has nudged the funded research agenda. People like me continue to hope that focusing on the evidence will eventually improve the public’s health.