Urologists Recommend IMRT for Prostate Cancer – And Double Their Income

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Indicator is $40,000

The Wall Street Journal continues to review Medicare payment records and ask probing questions about where the money is going.  I’ve previously recommended the WSJ evaluation of some of the high-billing probably fraudulent metro New York primary care physicians

Last week, the WSJ turned its attention to intensity-modulated radiation therapy  (IMRT), which is used to treat prostate cancer.  Among the treatments for prostate cancer are watchful waiting (small cost), surgery ($16,000 by the WSJ – sounds low to me), radiation seed implant ($19,000), and IMRT ($40,000). IMRT uses a computer to do a 3-D reconstruction to limit the amount of radiation delivered to noncancerous tissue.

The WSJ posts estimates from vendor about how IMRT can boost the income of a urologist by $336,000 if s/he refers just two new cases a month.  IMRT became available in the mid-2000s, when the urologists were suffering from serious loss of income after Medicare clamped down on profiting from prostate cancer drug markups.

Self referral continues to drive health care costs higher.  I’ve blogged on this before – there are higher rates of rotator cuff surgery in the practices of surgeons  who own ambulatory surgery facilities, and orthopedists who own MRIs and CTs refer to their machines with apparently excessive frequency.   Here’s a link to an older review of the literature on self referral.      

I don’t think many urologists who give IMRT believe that they are overutilizing this procedure.   However, the potential to double income is highly likely to have a subconscious effect.   We need to get away from paying for each unit of service, and dangling almost irresistible incentives in front of those who we expect to make decisions in the best interests of their patients.