Ordering tests may take food out of the mouths of our patients

by Tarcia Edmunds-Jehu

Sitting in an exam room I am watching my patient struggling to ask a difficult question that she clearly does not want to ask.

After several attempts at starting and a few half finished sentences she finally manages to mumble a request for help with obtaining food for herself and her two daughters. She is a 41-year-old woman, 32 weeks pregnant with her third child, and working a full time job as a CNA in a local nursing home. Her husband is also working full time as a janitor. At her initial visit she denied any issues obtaining food for herself and her family, and declined any referral to social services.

“Has the work situation changed for you or your husband?” No. “Have you always had difficulty getting food and did not want to ask?” No. “Is there some reason you need more food than you needed before?” No.

“Is there some new expense that is taking money that you used to be spending on food?”

Tears begin to flow and she starts to talk. She tells me that she had been in this country for 5 years and never had public assistance of any kind. She talks about her long hours working 2 and sometimes 3 jobs in order to have enough money to keep her family afloat. She talks about putting herself through school to become a CNA while still working to pay her bills. Until last year she was doing this alone, making not only money to provide for her family, but also the money needed to bring her husband here. She had never asked for help or let her children go without. But now she is unable to pay her bills and buy food. What is the tipping point for her ability to provide for her family?

Three ultrasound bills from this pregnancy.

She is 41 and had opted for an early screening test at 12 weeks that combines ultrasound and blood tests to give an estimated risk for Down Syndrome. She made this decision after a visit with a genetic counselor and had the test despite the fact that the results would have no effect on the outcome of her pregnancy.

At 18 weeks she had a fetal survey ultrasound that patients have routinely to check the anatomy of the baby and rule out anomalies.

At 30 weeks she had an ultrasound to check the growth of her baby because she was over age 40. This is following hospital protocol; despite the fact that there was no clinical indication her baby was anything but well grown.

This patient had private insurance through her job. Very few of my patients have private insurance, and at that time I worried less about a patient with a full time job who had private insurance meeting her needs than I did about a patient on welfare with state insurance. It didn’t occur to me to ask a patient if her medical bills were paid in full, or if she was responsible for paying a percentage or had a deductible.

The patient had insurance that would pay 80% of procedures, including ultrasound. Her insurance had deemed her 18-week fetal survey as necessary and were paying 80%, the other 2 ultrasounds were not considered necessary. She had a bill for close to $1400 that she had been paying off weekly for three months.

It could just have easily ended up that I would never have known about these bills, and in fact that may have been the case in the past with other patients.

We almost never think about what a test costs or whether it is paid for. Trying to find out the cost of a test is sometimes almost impossible. We almost never stop to think if a test is really indicated, or if the results will change the course of their treatment.

As providers we order tests because they are there, or because it’s easy, or because everyone gets them, or because we are scared if we don’t we’ll be sued, or because of arbitrary protocols. Sometimes we order tests because it’s the best thing for a patient.

No one orders tests thinking we might be taking food out of the mouths of our patients and their families, but sometimes that is exactly what we are doing.

Tarcia Edmunds-Jehu is a nurse-midwife.

On Labor Day Costs of Care, a Boston-based nonprofit, offered $1000 prizes for the best anecdotes from doctors and patients that illustrate the importance of cost-awareness in medicine. Two months later we received 115 submissions from all over the country – New York to California, Texas to North Dakota, Alaska to Oklahoma. We feel these stories are poignant because they put a face on some of the known shortcomings of our system, but also because they unveil how commonplace and pervasive these types of stories are. To learn more about the contest and read more of our stories please visit www.CostsOfCare.org (Twitter: @CostsOfCare).

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