Here’s an easy way for Medicare to save money

You may find this story hard to believe, but it’s true.

A 75-year-old non-smoking man with no serious medical problems and a relatively low-risk family history (father, a life-long smoker, died of a stroke at age 76) has been undergoing routine physical examinations by his primary care physician in Florida every 6 months for several years.

The visits include a full battery of laboratory studies, nearly all of which have been completely normal on every occasion.

The patient told me that he has been on a statin for about 20 years. At the time it was started, his total cholesterol level was 201 mg/dL. The generally accepted upper limit of normal is 200 mg/dL.

After his last visit, the doctor told him to take his pill every other day because his most recent total cholesterol was 109 mg/dL.

Can hypocholesterolemia cause health problems? How low is too low? No one knows for sure, but cholesterol is a constituent of cell membranes and many hormones.

I’ve blogged before about the overuse of medical care; particularly Pap smears in Florida.

Why does Medicare pay for all these unnecessary tests and drugs? Medicare probably has no way of knowing that a statin was started and is being continued for no good reason. But what about the cost of the office visits and routine blood work every 6 months?

It’s probably not much money per person, but of all the states, Florida has the greatest proportion of people who are at least 65 years old (17.3% in 2012).

The population of Florida in 2012 was 19.32 million so it has 3.28 million people over the age of 65. There’s potential for a lot of money to be wasted.

As one of its Choosing Wisely items, the Society of General Internal Medicine has recommended that routine general health exams not be done for asymptomatic adults.

Cochrane Review of 14 studies comprising 182,880 patients came to the same conclusion and noted that important harmful outcomes of routine check-ups were often not studied or reported.

In June I wrote about the doctors who received seemingly excessive Medicare payments identified by various journalists and wondered why Medicare couldn’t have discovered these obvious outliers on its own.

Routine check-ups every 6 months seem easy enough to identify and squelch. Why can’t Medicare do something?

“Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.

View 11 Comments >