What Is Government’s Role in Comparing Medical Treatments?

The personalized medicine initiative that President Barack Obama announced on Friday was previewed in the State of the Union address and is scheduled for inclusion in the budget to be released Monday. But in devoting federal funds to this, the administration may have made an argument against another type of medical research funded as part of Obamacare.

Section 6301 of the health-care law creates a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), designed to study the comparative effectiveness of treatment options for diseases. Comparative effectiveness research has proven controversial for several reasons. The idea that the price of various treatments are taken into account, using cost metrics to determine coverage decisions for government health programs, raises the specter of rationed care.

But beyond the potential question of government rationing–and whether the restrictions included in Obamacare are sufficient–lies a more nuanced problem: As one administration scientist noted ahead of the president’s announcement on Friday, “Throughout history most medical treatments were designed for the average patient, meaning they can be very successful for some but not for others.” Comparative effectiveness research involves comparing the effects of treatment on average patients or average groups of patients; others may not benefit, or may even be harmed, by the average treatment or course of action.

The challenge for policymakers and medical professionals is how to respond to the growing personalization of medical treatments. In creating PCORI, Obamacare attempted to acknowledge this trend, noting that the institute should engage in “research and evidence synthesis that considers variations in patient subpopulations.” The president’s new initiative may make such research obsolete. It also raises a different question: When personalized medicine may turn patient “groups” into a subpopulation of one, what is the proper role for the federal government in comparing treatments?

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.