Frugal Minnesota splurges on lower backs

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

For physicians and patients, treating lower back pain is an exercise in restraint and patience. According to federal guidelines, such pain usually resolves itself within six weeks with minimum intervention, so it’s often a matter of resisting the temptation to order a $500 MRI within that time window. And in Minnesota, a state known for its health-care-related moderation, that temptation seems to be too much.

As the Christopher Snowbeck of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports, Minnesota doctors are worse than the national average when it comes to giving lower back pain patients MRIs without exploring cheaper alternatives. And in the land of Lake Wobegon, being below average is a big deal. The conclusions come from Hospital Compare’s newly released 2008 outcomes data. To learn more about this data, check out AHCJ’s recent conference call on the subject.

For some help reading between the lines of Snowbeck’s story (and the Hospital Compare data), see Gary Schwizter’s recent blog post on the subject; he doesn’t mince words.

The story includes other excuses from local providers along the lines of “the data are outdated…we’ve changed…we’re better now…that can’t be right…it’s not us!” When have you ever seen a story on health care data that didn’t have these predictable reactions? It reminds me of The Tobacco Institute continually rejecting any new finding that showed new harms from smoking. When you don’t like the data, damn the data. For most of the history of medicine we had no outcomes data to show patterns of practice or what happens to people over time. Now that we’re starting to collect some such data, vested interests find that information is a menacing thing.

For more about treatment of back pain, particularly how much money is spent on it, see the just-released “Back Problems: Use and Expenditures for the U.S. Adult Population, 2007” (PDF) from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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