The government is spending about $8 million this year to design computer programs that will enable researchers for the first time to glean treatment information from the files of some 32 million Medicare recipients.
Bob Hardy, a spokesman for the Health Care Information Resource Center which runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs, said the agency will seek another $72 million next year for the program aimed at tapping the nation's largest collection of medical data.Dr. William L. Roper, head of the HFCA, said the computerized network on treatments, planned to start in 1990, may provide the next revolution in medical care.
"We're trying to extend the science," Roper said, referring to the belief among physicians and other practitioners that medicine has always been a combination of both art and science.
The government has been collecting data on patients' diagnoses, treatments and outcomes since the Medicare insurance program began in 1965. The information comes from claims billed by physicians, hospitals and other health care providers.
Hardy said the data base has not been used before to analyze the most effective treatments out of concerns for patient privacy, a lack of computer resources and fear of government intrusion into medical practices.
"The time is ripe for it now," Hardy said, adding there is no intent in the program "to force doctors to use specific procedures."
Roper and Hardy acknowledged that quantified data from the files on various treatments could be used by professional societies, private insurers and the government in setting new treatment guidelines and ferret-ing out ineffective or unneccessary practices.
"That part is secondary," Hardy said. "It's down the pike and would happen naturally, but ultimately, it would be a byproduct. The only way this thing will work successfully is with the cooperation of the medical community."
At the agency's request, 13 leading physicians convened by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine met last week to pick priority areas where the quantitative studies should begin.
Among a list tentatively chosen were treatments for angina or heart pain, heart attacks, breast cancer, prostate troubles, strokes and hip fractures, Hardy said. Together, they account for billions of dollars spent on health care annually.