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January 17, 2008

Two U-M doctors receive Blue Cross Blue Shield Excellence in Research Award

Award given for U-M-led research on EMG use to diagnose back pain, and investigation of the cost, value and benefits of medical care

Ann Arbor, MI – Two physicians at the University of Michigan Health System have been selected to receive the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation’s McDevitt Excellence in Research Award for their individual work as clinical researchers.

BCBSM Foundation LogoAndrew J. Haig, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the U-M Medical School, and Allison B. Rosen, M.D., MPH, ScD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at U-M who also holds positions at the U-M School of Public Health and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, are two of only four researchers in the state to be honored with this achievement.

The BCBSM Foundation’s Excellence in Research Award honors research that contributes to improving health and medical care in Michigan. The award, named in honor of the foundation’s late chairman Frank J. McDevitt, D.O., includes a $10,000 unrestricted research grant to further these doctors’ studies. 

Andrew J. Haig, M.D.: Back Pain and EMG

Andrew Haig, M.D.
Andrew Haig, M.D.

Haig was given the BCBSM award for his research on Electromyography (EMG) and back pain. With funding by the National Institutes of Health, Haig led the Michigan Spinal Stenosis Study, which found that EMG can accurately diagnose the debilitating and serious spinal disorder which causes a narrowing of spaces in the spine that result in pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. The collaborative effort, which included other U-M specialists in physical medicine and rehabilitation, neurosurgery and radiology, sought to determine the effectiveness of certain radiological tests to diagnose and treat back pain. 

For their study, the researchers compared MRI scans and Paraspinal Mapping Electromyography, a technique devised and refined by Haig’s team during the past decade.  They found that the MRI scans showed little difference between those affected by the condition and those who had regular back pain. The EMG, on the other hand, successfully detected a number of neurological disorders masquerading as spinal stenosis and was almost 100 percent specific in proving people had the condition.  The test was also successful at detecting a common neuromuscular disease that can mimic spinal stenosis.

Researchers say the findings of this can help reduce misdiagnosis of low back pain and other common neuromuscular conditions that can mimic symptoms, offering hope to some 400,000 Americans who have spinal stenosis. 

“Most doctors think of EMG as a simple test and incorrectly believe that it is sensitive for nerve damage, but cannot differentiate spinal stenosis from neuromuscular disease,” Haig explains.  “As our research demonstrates, EMG is an excellent test for spinal stenosis and other neuromuscular disorders.”

Allison B. Rosen, M.D., MPH, ScD: Financial Incentives and Health Care Value

Allison Rosen, M.D.
Allison Rosen, M.D.

Rosen was honored with the BCBSM award for her work investigating the cost, value and benefits of medical care in the policy forum. In recent research efforts, she has found that if some medicines are offered for free to certain high-risk patients, money could be saved in the long run by preventing costly problems later. This research focused on the use of a group of drugs called ACE inhibitors, which help prevent heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure in diabetes patients. She found that if these drugs were available cost-free, not just lives would be saved. The benefits of avoiding costly hospital stays and medical treatment would save significant amounts of money for the Medicare system and tax-payers. Moreover, the quality of life and their life-expectancy rates would improve as well. 

Using a sophisticated computer model to track costs, the study focused on patients over the age of 65 with diabetes, a category some 8 million Americans fall into.   Generic ACE inhibitors are estimated to cost $200 to $300 per year out-of-pocket for these patients. But only about 40 percent of the patients who should take them actually do. Rosen expects this number to jump to 60 percent if the drugs were available at no cost to the patients.

The study subsequently led to a pilot program for U-M employees with diabetes. This program has lowered out-of-pocket costs for specific therapies that can prevent or delay some of the complications of diabetes, such as heart attacks, strokes, blindness, and kidney failure.  Rosen is leading the evaluation of this program through the U-M Center for Value-Based Insurance Design.

Her new study is aimed at improving policy makers’ understanding of both the costs and benefits of care for patients – to take into account the true value of health care expenditures. 

“This ongoing program of research involves developing a national infrastructure which uses standardized methods to track and attribute changes in health care spending and health outcomes to specific diseases. We hope to provide policymakers with a more nuanced understanding of the impact of resource allocation decisions on disease-specific spending and health,” says Rosen.

The money accompanying the award will be used to continue Rosen’s research with David Cutler, Ph.D., at Harvard University. Together, they are working to revise the National Health Expenditure Accounts, a federally maintained database of health spending that plays a major role in federal health policy decision making. Currently, the NHEA database provides no information on the value of health care spending, as it does not track the true output of investments in health care - health.

To learn more, visit these web sites:

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation
The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation is dedicated to improving the health of Michigan residents by supporting health care research and innovative health programs. The foundation’s grant programs are conducted in Michigan by Michigan-based researchers and nonprofit community health care organizations.

Over the past 25 years, the BCBSM Foundation has contributed approximately $20 million in grants for research and $5 million for community health programs. This funding has resulted in enhancements to quality, patient safety and access to care for the people of Michigan. The foundation also supports efforts to control the rising costs of health care through research, demonstration and evaluation projects.

The BCBSM Foundation is the philanthropic affiliate of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. The foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. For more information, visit

Written by: Milly Dick

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