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Medical Guesswork

From heart surgery to prostate care, the health industry knows little about which common treatments really work

The signs at the meeting were not propitious. Half the board members of Kaiser Permanente's Care Management Institute left before Dr. David Eddy finally got the 10 minutes he had pleaded for. But the message Eddy delivered was riveting. With a groundbreaking computer simulation, Eddy showed that the conventional approach to treating diabetes did little to prevent the heart attacks and strokes that are complications of the disease. In contrast, a simple regimen of aspirin and generic drugs to lower blood pressure and cholesterol sent the rate of such incidents plunging. The payoff: healthier lives and hundreds of millions in savings. "I told them: 'This is as good as it gets to improve care and lower costs, which doesn't happen often in medicine,"' Eddy recalls. "'If you don't implement this,' I said, 'you might as well close up shop."'

The message got through. Three years later, Kaiser is in the midst of a major initiative to change the treatment of the diabetics in its care. "We're trying to put nearly a million people on these drugs," says Dr. Paul Wallace, senior adviser to the Care Management Institute. The early results: The strategy is indeed improving care and cutting costs, just as Eddy's model predicted.