Evidence Mounts Against Unnecessary, Costly Tests

Once upon a time an adult physical exam routinely included urinalysis, blood tests, echocardiogram and many other screening tests, such as a bone-density scan. But a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine adds to the growing body of evidence that many such tests are inappropriate, unnecessary and costly beyond their value.

The study, as described by Kaiser Health News, examined the cost of common primary care practices that had been declared overused by a group of physicians known as the Good Stewardship Working Group. It includes internists, family physicians and pediatricians who are part of the National Physicians Alliance, which advocates universal, affordable health care.
Among that group’s conclusions:

  • blood and other diagnostic tests were often ordered even for patients who had no related symptoms or risk factors;
  • imaging studies such as CT scans or MRIs for low back pain and Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer in teenagers were unnecessary;
  • writing prescriptions for antibiotics for children with sore throats who didn’t have a strep infection was unwise;
  • recommending cough medicines for children with upper respiratory infections and ordering head imaging tests kids who had fallen but didn’t exhibit symptoms such as dizziness or loss of consciousness were unnecessary.

The new study estimated that 12 of the unnecessary treatments and screenings cost $6.8 billion in 2009.

The activity most frequently performed without need was a complete blood cell count at a routine physical exam. In more than half of the surveyed routine physicals, doctors inappropriately ordered such tests that cost $32.7 million.

But the single costliest bad practice was prescribing brand-name statins before trying patients on a generic drug first – that accounts for $5.8 billion of the $6.8 billion total.

Study authors said their cost figures were conservative, given that they didn’t factor the cost of follow-up tests or procedures prompted by an abnormal blood test reading result or imaging scan, even though in the absence of symptoms or risk factors the follow-up may be unnecessary and even cause harm.

Doctors order unnecessary and overpriced tests and drugs when there’s no reason because it’s ingrained in their training, said one member of the Alliance, because some patients expect them and because doctors practice defensive medicine – you don’t get into legal trouble, goes that thinking, if you cover far more bases than you’ll ever need.

Those reasons are misguided on medical, legal and financial grounds.

The new study concludes that doctors alone can’t rewrite these misdirections. Patients must inform themselves about when a test is indicated in order to be better medical consumers. And both doctors and patients must communicate. How often have you asked your doctor what the prescription he just prescribed will cost, and he says “I don’t know”?

If your doctor prescribes a test, make sure you know why, what side effects might result and how much it costs. If medication is prescribed, ask if there’s a generic version and, if so, if it will suffice, and how much it costs.

Ignorance in standard medical care is not bliss. It’s expensive.

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