Aspirin – Questioning Established Wisdom

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Bayer began selling aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in 1899, and the similar salicylic acid, derived from willow bark and other sources, has been used medicinally for thousands of years.  Since the 1960’s it has often been used for heart attacks and strokes. Studies showed that in patients who have had heart attacks, daily aspirin prevents another one. This is know as secondary prevention.

Doctors have assumed that it would also be good to prevent the first heart attack in patients at higher risk. This is know as primary prevention. The problem is that’s much harder to prove.  Even patients at higher risk might never have one, or maybe not for many years, so a research study can take many thousands of patients followed for many years, thus costing many millions of dollars, to tell if there is a benefit. Rare side effects can take many years to figure out. There have been studies done over the years, with inconclusive and sometimes with inconsistent results.

According to a trio of recent articles (Effect of Aspirin on Cardiovascular Events and Bleeding in the Healthy Elderly, Effect of Aspirin on All-Cause Mortality in the Healthy Elderly, and Effect of Aspirin on Disability-free Survival in the Healthy Elderly), aspirin use may cause more harm than benefit for primary prevention. They looked at patients >= 70-year-old (>= 65-year-old for blacks/hispanics in the US). A low proportion of participants regularly took low-dose aspirin before entering the trial, which did not directly address whether healthy older persons who have been using aspirin for primary prevention should continue or discontinue its use. Now 2019 guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recommend low dose aspirin for primary prevention only in limited patient populations at higher risk.

When it comes to medical treatments, it’s pretty much always a question of balancing benefit versus risk and cost. For aspirin, cost is pretty much not an issue. Although studies may look at thousands of patients, people are not homogenous, and any particular study may not apply to a particular patient. The guidelines listed above state that aspirin might be considered for primary prevention in adults age 40 to 70 at higher heart risk but who do not have a higher bleeding risk. They do not recommend it for routine use for those over 70-years-old. Note that it still may be warranted in some because of higher risk, and it’s still recommended for most older patient if they have known heart disease.

I think these new recommendations will eventually lead to less patients taking aspirin to prevent a first heart attack. This will lead to less bleeding, but it may increase other problems For example, aspirin may decrease the risk of colon and other cancers. It may help prevent deep venous thrombosis (DVT) blood clots in the legs, which could lead to a more serious pulmonary embolism (PE), so long distance air travelers may be at higher risk of a clot if they stop taking their aspirin. They could just take it before a trip, but will they remember? The FDA just added a block box warning for Uloric (febuxostat), a medicine used for gout, because of recently appreciated increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Surely there will be patients on that medication on aspirin for primary prevention who will stop aspirin, as a result of reading in the media that they should, but will then go on to have a heart attack because either they didn’t discuss it with their physician, or they did but their doctor didn’t know or appreciate the increased heart attack risk with Uloric. That medicine, by the way, should also be judged on benefits versus risks and alternatives, and is still appropriate for some patients, though not as many people as the drug reps would have had doctors believe. They’ve stopped promoting it as it’s almost generic, but that’s another story.

Medical Pricing Transparency via Non-Transparent Rule

copyright 2015 Daniel Ginsberg PhotographyHidden in a 700-page draft regulation to improve patient’s access to their electronic medical records is a proposal to require doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to publicly reveal the prices they have negotiated with insurers. This rule, tied to the 21st Century Cures Act, would set the stage for eventually making prices publicly available. Although price transparency may be a good way to help lower medical costs, it’s ironic that there is a lack of transparency when it comes to the proposed rule. I challenge you to read the Title, Summary, or Actions section and realize that it includes such a major change (hint – in the PDF document it’s on page 7513 of the Federal Register under Price Information).

On the face of it, making prices readily available sounds like a no-brainer, but I think it’s more complicated than that, and there may be unforeseen consequences. The rule is long and complex, and I don’t have the few days it would probably take me to really understand it, but let me play devil’s advocate. Some of the comments posted say that medicine is the only industry that hides the cost. To a certain extent that’s true, but this rule could go beyond just saying the price consumers pay. If you go to a restaurant they won’t reveal how much they paid for the the ingredients. If you book through a 3rd party website, they don’t tell you how much, if any, they pay them for the referral. When you buy a car the dealer usually doesn’t tell you if the automobile manufacturer is giving them a rebate. From the point of view of a business, the consumer shouldn’t get to know their internal costs as that’s secret competitive information.

What mitigates that argument is that the price of healthcare has gotten out of control. Despite being better educated about the matter than most, when it comes to getting healthcare for their own family I suspect most physicians struggle to understand their bills just like everyone else.

When it comes to pay, doctors are a commodity. For a given surgical procedure or office visit of a certain complexity, they are paid the same amount as mandated by Medicare or Medicaid, as negotiated with insurance companies, or their list price for the unfortunate cash patient. Just like any profession, some doctors are better than others. If you want to hire a top lawyer or an A list actor, you have to pay top dollar.  But that’s not so with much of healthcare. The price doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the care.

Hospital systems mitigate that somewhat. They can negotiate higher prices with insurance companies and with large employers by demonstrating that they provide higher quality care and/or lower cost care, or because patient perceive them as providing superior care and they demand that that can get care from them. What will happen if the rule goes into affect and patients can easily compare prices? I don’t know, but potentially they might choose the lowest cost without regard to quality. That could lead to systems competing on price, cutting corners to do so, and ultimately lowering quality.

The lowest price might actually not be the path to cost savings. Imagine two surgeons. One of them charges $5,000 for a knee replacement, and operates on 60% of the patients seen for knee arthritis, treating the rest successfully with injections and physical therapy, which on average costs $1,000. The other charges $7,000, and operates on 50% of the patients seen and treats the rest successfully with the same conservative measures. Besides the physician fee, the hospital system charges $10,000 for the surgery. In this example, treating 100 patients would cost $940,000 for the first surgeon, and $900,000 for second. So even though the second surgeon charges 40% more than the first, on average the doctor ends up being cheaper when it comes to managing knee arthritis.

I’m inclined to support more transparency in healthcare pricing, but I don’t know how much of an impact it will have, and there may be unintended consequences.

Don’t expect to see published prices anytime soon. Even if the proposal goes forward, following a public comment period that ends May 3, it’s likely to be tied up in legal challenges for quite a while.