How doctors can reduce unnecessary tests and treatments

Several years ago, when my wife directed the third-year Family Medicine clinical clerkship at a highly ranked medical school, she developed a popular workshop on the cost of health care that presented students with scenarios of patients who were either uninsured or underinsured and challenged them to provide cost-conscious health care by selecting medications and tests that were clinically appropriate and financially affordable.

Many students remarked that it was the only time during their two years of clinical rotations when they were required to consider costs in decision-making.

Now that the U.S. health reform bill is law, and over 95 percent of Americans (as opposed to today’s 84 percent) are expected to have health insurance by 2014, many physicians may be tempted to think that they can ignore the costs associated with prevention, diagnosis, and management of patients’ health conditions and just focus on doing what’s “right” for the patient, since somebody else is footing the bill.

But contrary to popular opinion, that “somebody else” isn’t an insurance company or the government; ultimately, it’s the patient, in the form of higher insurance premiums (or taxes) to pay for an ever-expanding range of tests or treatments of questionable or zero benefit.

In response to Dr. Howard Brody’s challenge to the medical profession to identify lists of unnecessary tests and treatments, physicians have suggested antibiotics for colds, coronary calcium scans, PSA and thyroid tests in well patients, drugs for high blood pressure that are more expensive and offer fewer benefits than older drugs, MRIs and spinal fusions for low back pain. If it’s so easy to come up with a list, then why is it so hard to eliminate the waste? According to a recent Newsweek article, the problem is that many of the items on the list are physicians’ financial “bread and butter.”

“We doctors are extremely good at rationalizing,” says Brody in the article. “Somehow we manage to figure out how the very best care just happens to be the care that brings us the most money.” Other concerns voiced by physicians are that patients have come to expect (if not demand) much of the aforementioned unnecessary care because it’s been going on for so long.

But if health care reform is to have any hope of slowing the extraordinary growth in the cost of health care in the U.S., doctors can’t keep looking to patients, hospitals, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, and insurers for solutions. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Molly Cooke argues convincingly that cost-consciousness must be systematically incorporated into medical and continuing education:

First, we should be honest about the choices that we make every day and stop hiding behind the myth that every physician should and does apply every resource in unlimited degree to every patient for even minimal potential benefit. Second, we must prepare every physician to assess not only the benefit or effectiveness of diagnostic tests, treatments, and strategies but also their value. Value can be increased through cost-conscious diagnostic and management strategies and by the engineering of better and less wasteful processes of care.

“Value” isn’t about saving money, but means getting the maximum health benefit for our enormous investments in health care. This wake-up call needs to be delivered and reinforced to students, residents, and health professionals at every level — starting today.

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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