Whether or not a patient should get an expensive imaging scan or some other elaborate and expensive test is not always clearcut. But what should be clearcut is that doctors should not have a thumb on the scale when they’re balancing harms versus benefits. The balancing ought to be focused entirely on what’s in the patient’s best interest. The news story about what happened when a group of urologists in Iowa ordered a new CT scanner for their office sheds light on this conflict of interest issue.
According to the article by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post, the doctors at Urological Associates in Iowa were ordering fewer than one dozen CT scans per month for their insured patients in the months before their office bought its own CT scanning machine. That number jumped to 55 scans per month soon after the doctors got their own machine and started getting direct insurance payments for its use.
Defenders of the doctor-owned machines say it’s more convenient for patients not to have to go to some other building for their scan. That’s no doubt true — if the scan is really needed in the first place. The problem is that self-interest colors the doctor’s calculation, whether subtly or blatantly.
You might say “so what,” but no test is without its downside, and excessive radiation from unnecessary CT scans can ultimately cause cancer in some patients — as many as one in one hundred cancers are traced to radiation exposure. Not to mention bankrupting our health care system in the meantime.
Congress is considering outlawing the practice of what is called “self-referral,” referring the patient to a test on a machine that the doctor owns. At the least, Congress should make it mandatory that doctors disclose any self-interest they have in testing, so that patients can take it into account in deciding whether they want the test.
I discuss doctor conflicts of interest in Chapter 9 of my new book, “The Life You Save.” Chapter 9 is called “The Second Opinion: Always Your First Choice.” It explains why you the patient need to understand if your doctor may have some ulterior influence on his or her thinking, and how it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion before undergoing any major procedure.