The PM made a big deal about the need to ensure treatments are evaluated and backed by good evidence in this widely-reported speech at St Vincent’s Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne last Friday.
He said: “ Patients need treatments, technologies, and procedures for which there is evidence from research that these are safe and effective. This is what patients expect. And it is what taxpayers also expect. Australia has mechanisms in place to make sure that this applies to the introduction and funding of new pharmaceuticals. But no similar mechanism applies to procedures and treatments already in place.As a result, procedures and treatments that lack evidence of their effectiveness, or have been shown by research to be ineffective, continue to be used.”
The PM cited Australian research, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and reported in Crikey, which found, he said, “that a commonly available treatment for fractures of the bones of the spinal cord was in fact no better than doing nothing at all”.
The PM said the Government was “keen to explore in conjunction with private health insurers and our research community” an NHMRC suggestion that treatments, therapies and devices which are not backed by evidence should be evaluated.
In the light of the PM’s enthusiasm for ensuring that health funding is well spent, I wonder whether he and his office are familiar with the work that was being done along these lines by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in evaluating surgical techniques.
Professor Guy Maddern, a surgeon who has been a driving force behind this work, writes of his great frustration at the Government’s apparent lack of support for the work:
“The recent publications in the New England Journal of Medicine describing the results of vertebroplasty highlight the problem of introduction of new surgical technologies.
Whenever a new procedure is assessed, particularly in its early stages, it is often difficult to prove that it is a superior step forward than existing technologies. This is in part because it is difficult to conduct the trials necessary to prove benefit.
Rather than rejecting a procedure because the evidence fails to be compelling, these two recent publications in the New England Journal of Medicine highlight the need for careful and assessed introduction of new technologies and procedures into surgical practice.
It is a great shame that the Australian Commonwealth Government does not greatly value assessment of procedures, particularly if they are not associated with a new Medicare item. While great efforts are put into assessing introduction of new drugs, substantial efforts are put into assessing new devices, much less effort and energy is put into the assessment of new procedures which often represent an alteration, which may be significant, of existing procedures.
It has been a great disappointment to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons that the Commonwealth Government has not felt the need to continue to support the Australian Safety and Efficacy Register of New Interventional Procedures in Surgery.
This organisation, run by the College of Surgeons, attempts to look at new procedures that are introduced without the necessity for new Medicare item numbers. It may be that the alteration of a length of bowel, an angle of suturing or the use of existing devices in new and novel ways can bring enormous benefits but also potentially enormous harm to patients.
This desperately needs to be assessed and reported on, but explaining this to the Government at this time is a difficult and frustrating experience.
The reporting of this recent study highlights the difficulties in assessing new technologies but does not excuse the process from occurring. Hopefully it will provide further evidence to the health authorities that such activities are desperately needed within our health system.”
More info about the scheme is available in this British Medical Journal article.