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Lifetime Benefits of Medical Technology

Revascularization (bypass surgery or angioplasty) have been frequently used procedures to treat patients who have experienced a myocardial infarction (MI). These procedure are expensive, but are supposed to enhance longevity. Do they?

This is the question analyzed by David Cutler in his NBER working paper titled “The Lifetime Benefits of Medical Technology.” The problem with many MI studies is that they are short term. Cutler uses data on Medicare beneficiaries who had a heart attack between 1986 and 1988. This means that Cutler can utilize 17 years of follow-up mortality data.

Another issue with non-randomized trials is that of patient selection. Very sick MI patients likely will not receive revascularization surgeries because they not be well enough to survive the surgery. Relatively healthy MI patients may not need revascularization. Thus, even the direction of the selection bias is unknown in this case. In order to account for this selection problem, the paper uses an instrumental variables approach.

The instrument is “the distance to the nearest revascularization hospital [defined as a hospital capable of preforming a revascularization] minus the distance to the nearby hospital of any type.” This instrument was used in a paper by McClellan, McNeil and Newhouse (JAMA 1994). In order for the instrument to be valid, “patients who are more likely to benefit from invasive treatments do not select their residential location based on distance to high-tech medical care.” Cutler argues that this likely true since most covariates are balance above and below the median differential distance. It is possible, however, that richer, healthier people live in more affluent areas and revascularization hospitals locate their facilities to attract these types of patients. I do not know whether or not this is the case. Also, “…if hospitals that provide revascularization are also better at providing aspirin at admission, at managing post-acute follow-up, or at treating subsequent illnesses years later, the instrumental variables estimates will overstate the importance of revascularization.”

Cutler does show that his instrument is relevant as “people who live closer to a revascularization hospital are 3 percentage points more likely to receive a revascularization procedure than those who live farther away.”


The affect of revascularization on mortality is not clear.

“The marginal person receiving a revascularization is about 4 percentage points more likely to survive the first day after the MI than if the person did not receive a revascularization (although not statistically significantly). This gap narrows over time and even reverses by 1 year. At that time interval, people who received revascularization are 6 percentage points more likely to have died than people not receiving revascularization.”

After 17 years, people with MI have a mortality benefit of 5% but this result is not statistically significant. Cutler also examines the cost-effectiveness of revascularization procedures:

“…The greater survival for the marginal patients receiving revascularization translates into 1.1 years of additional life expectancy. The cost of this gain is about $38,000. Thus, the cost per year of life is $33,246.”

A year of life is generally valued at around $100,000, which might lead one to conclude that this is a worthwhile procedure. Since the mortality differential is not measured very precisely, however, one should be somewhat skeptical of this conclusions. Further, Cutler wisely notes that he is not sure whether or not the actual revascularization caused the decreased mortality. Being admitted to a revascularization hospital may simply be a proxy for the receipt of other hospital services, or it could be the case that revascularization hospitals provide superior patient management and patient care than non-revascularization hospitals. Also, due to data constraints, this paper only examines mortality effects. The impact of heart surgery on quality of life is not considered.