Ladies: Stop Cutting Off Healthy Breasts

bra_breast_cancerReally scary story in The Wall Street Journal this week about a dramatic increase in double mastectomies in this country — and not for women who need them.

Most women diagnosed with breast cancer only need a lumpectomy in the affected breast or, more rarely, a mastectomy. There is no evidence that removing the healthy breast reduces the risk of recurrence or increases survival.

Yet rates of double mastectomy among women diagnosed with breast cancer have skyrocketed in the past 13 years, from 2 percent in 1998 to 12 percent in 2011. And no, it’s not because women have been diagnosed with more severe breast cancer or some major study showed that slicing off healthy breasts keeps cancer at bay.

As one plastic surgeon quoted in the Journal article tells his patients: “Why don’t we simply remove your foot? It will have the same effect on survival.”

Don’t take my word for it; check out this study of 190,000 women with breast cancer that compared survival rates in those who had a double mastectomy vs those who underwent lumpectomy followed by radiation. Bottom line: … Continue Reading

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How Much Is That CT Scan In the Window?

transparencyDo you know how much that 50-inch, flat-screen TV cost? How about your car? The cashmere cardigan you just had to have?

So how much did that visit with your gyn because of your painful period cost (men: substitute whatever you want here)? The ultrasound to see if you had a fibroid? The myomectomy to remove the fibroid?

A few years ago it didn’t matter so much; most of us only had to handle relatively small copayments and many of us didn’t even have deductibles. Fast forward to today, when the cost job-based health insurance has grown faster than our incomes, essentially eating up any salary increases over the past 10 years. In fact, the average deductible has more than doubled for most employees regardless of the size of their companies.

Note I said the past 10 years. Which means you can’t blame the five-year-old Affordable Care Act entirely. In fact, out-of-pocket payments would likely be higher without the ACA; a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found a “marked slowdown in premium growth in 31 states and the District of Columbia.” However, that same report also found that premiums increased about … Continue Reading

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Why Repealing the Affordable Care Act Won’t Stop Healthcare Reform

So the election is over. The Republicans now control both houses. And several are promising that one of their first jobs is to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I’m sure there are lots of people jumping up and down with glee.

This reaction reminds me what one doctor told me a couple of weeks ago after I spoke to his group (abdominal surgeons) about healthcare reform (you can read more about the experience here). “This (the ACA) is going to go away and things will return to normal.”

Um, not quite.

Sure, if the ACA goes away we’ll return to more than 40 million uninsured Americans who can’t afford health care. States that have expanded Medicaid will have to pick up the full tab for those expansions (instead of 10% beginning in 2020). Young adults who are still covered on their parents’ policies will now have to buy their own — if they can afford them. Women will once again be discriminated against in terms of premiums and plan designs. People with preexisting conditions will be unable to find affordable health insurance on the individual market. We’ll have no guarantee of a basic set of benefits (for instance, some … Continue Reading

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How Much is Three Extra Months Worth?

I’m in the middle of a project about the future of cancer care in this country. And you can’t talk about cancer treatment these days without also talking about cost. That’s because cancer drugs are among the most expensive in the world, with several costing more than $100,000 a year. If you have a 20% copayment, that means $20,000 out of your pocket.

Yet most of these drugs extend life just a few months and most have significant side effects.

Let’s take a look at one drug approved this year: Zykadia, indicated for a type of late-stage lung cancer. It costs $13,200 a month, or $158,000 a year. It works exactly the same a drug approved three years earlier for the same type of cancer, Xalkori, which costs about $2,000 a month less (although still pricy at $11,500 a month). In clinical trials, it staved off cancer progression for a median of seven months (meaning half the patients in the trial saw their cancer begin growing again in less than seven months; half in more than seven months).

I’m not saying that an extra seven … Continue Reading

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Can We Teach Physicians to Consider Cost?

My best friend’s daughter is pre-med in college. She’s brilliant, and is planning to become a developmental pediatrician (as of now, at least). By the time she enters medical school in two years, I really hope she learns not only anatomy and physiology, diagnosis, and how to insert a breathing tube, but how to consider the cost of the care she provides.

Residents have been required to learn how “incorporate considerations of cost awareness and risk-benefit analysis” in caring for patients since 2007, but how this is done is unclear. In addition, few medical schools provide any such training. Indeed, talking about cost in medical training has traditionally been tantamount to giving voice to “he-who-must-not-be-named.”

That is changing, as it must in a healthcare system that now makes up 18 percent of GDP, with costs typically rising far faster than inflation. As Molly Cooke, MD, wrote in a 2010 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, “We must be honest about the choices that we make every day and stop hiding behind the myth that every physician should and does … Continue Reading

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Is Your Mammogram Worth the Price?

When two people mention the same thing to me within a week, I know it’s time to take notice. This time it was 3-D mammograms (aka digital breast tomosynthesis). Hospital radiology departments and mammogram centers are marketing them as if they were the new female Viagra and yet. . . we don’t yet know if the risks are worth the benefits.

A traditional mammogram consists of vertical and horizontal images. The 3-D mammogram, as its name implies, provides a more holistic view as it swings in an arc around the breast, then combines those pictures into a three-dimensional image just like a CT scan. Studies find that combining the two may reduce call backs for additional tests and improve cancer detection rates.  Overall, the National Cancer Institute reports, about 20 percent of breast cancers are missed during mammography and about 10 percent of women get called back for further screening.

I first heard about 3-D mammography during a dinner party, when a friend announced that she’d been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer (actually, she’d been diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ [DCIS], which is not technically cancer). If it weren’t for this amazing … Continue Reading

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cost mammograms

The CT Scan Cost HOW Much??

So a couple of months ago I saw my doctor about this chronic pain in my lower right abdomen. I’d had it for about a year, sometimes barely noticeable, sometimes more noticeable, and, being a medical writer, I was certain it was ovarian cancer (don’t ask my why, but I’m convinced that this is the cancer lying in wait for me, even though I have no risk factors. Medical writers are only second to med students in terms of hypochondria).

Anyway, my doctor thought it was probably gynecologic and told me to see my gyn. But he also suggested a CT scan to rule out a kidney infection or stone. Sure, I said, and off I went to radiology.

Long story short, we still don’t know why I have this sometimes pain, but it’s not that bad and I’ll just live with it (until it turns out to be something serious and it kills me [see, I told you medical writers were hypochondriacs]).

But the pain got much worse last week when I received a bill from the radiology center for $778.62. Turns out that’s what I owe after my insurance company paid it’s part of the charge. Here’s how … Continue Reading

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Reigning in the Cost of Health Insurance, or, Why We Can’t Have Granite Countertops on a Laminate Budget

This blog comes to you courtesy of a nasty exchange on Facebook. It started with a posting about the fact that an insurance plan offered through the state exchange did not include the regional children’s hospital in its network.

This is happening around the country as insurers limit provider networks in order to keep premiums within  prescribed limits, whether those limits are mandated by the Affordable Care Act or by the employer paying for the health insurance. And it’s no secret that specialty hospitals like children’s hospitals and teaching hospitals have far higher costs than community hospitals. Reasons include the cost of training medical residents and fellows, the high percentage of Medicaid patients they see as well as the high percentage of uncompensated care they provide, and their mission to do research as well as provide patient care. They do receive additional federal and state funding to compensate — at least partly — for those expenditures, but in this day of shrinking budgets it doesn’t cover it all.

On the other hand, insurers offering policies on the exchanges must keep premiums within a certain limit based on actuarial data in their region. In addition, employers are looking for ways to … Continue Reading

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How Much for That Shoulder Replacement?

Forgive the blog silence, I’ve been online trying to sign up for health insurance on www.healthcare.gov (just a little healthcare reform humor there).

So today we’re going to do a bit of math. Don’t worry — I’m not a math person so this will be simple and painless.

We’re going back to my aunt, who was prominently featured in my last post.

She’s doing quite well ( thanks to all who sent good wishes). And she just received the first of what will be many bills.

This one was for the surgery and hospitalization. The hospital billed Medicare $11,851. Keep in mind that’s for the hospital only. Not the radiologist who read her xrays, or the anesthesiologist who made sure she felt no pain, or the surgeon who replaced her shoulder, or the visiting nurse, or the physical therapist, or the outpatient prescription medications. Just the facility charges for the surgery and three days in the hospital.

Medicare and her supplemental insurance paid the hospital $2,016 — about 17 percent of the total charges (don’t worry, I used an online calculator to figure this out). She had no copay thanks to that supplemental insurance.

If she didn’t have insurance, however, … Continue Reading

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