Blood tests in hospitals may be unnecessary

I’ve just finished a month “on-service” as a teaching attending for a general medicine team here at GlassHospital. This means I served as the physician of record for every patient admitted to the team.

You might find it interesting to know that patients admitted to the hospital’s general medicine service get assigned to their teams by random assortment. Since there are five teams, one team takes call every fifth day. In true “general” fashion, this allows for somewhat random distribution of diagnoses, so that the doctors-in-training experience as much as possible over the course of their three year residencies.

I’m now a decade out of my residency, and reflecting on the distance, I find that the biggest constant in hospitals over that time is change.

In the past ten years, there are dozens of new drugs we use routinely. Information technology has moved front and center in all of our operations. Our patients continue to experience big procedures in less invasive ways, be they laparoscopic (the use of telescopes and tiny incisions versus ‘open,’ wide-incision surgeries), endoscopic (using fiber optic tubes to see, biopsy, and treat all parts of the digestive tract), or intravascular (procedures and devices done in the blood vessels with nary an incision).

There certainly is more attention paid to money in health care; when I trained we focused almost exclusively on what we thought best for patients. Now it seems as though everything is filtered through a lens of financial impact. I don’t think imparting a sense of financial ramifications to our trainees in necessarily a bad thing, but it does alter the fundamentals a little.

One thing hasn’t changed over the decade, though: our incredible reliance on daily blood draws from our pin-cushioned hospitalized patients.

Every morning at 6am, nearly every patient that’s been admitted to our team gets a visit from one of the friendly phlebotomists -– people from our central lab who poke at the crook of their elbow (medical speak: “antecubital fossa”) or somewhere else on their bruised arm or hand with a needle and take one, two, or more tubes of blood to run “daily labs” on.

Some of these poor patients are phlebotomized multiple times per day. This can be medically necessary, if, say, a patient is internally bleeding and we need to make sure that their blood count is not dropping. Another medically necessary example occurs when a patient’s kidneys or liver are damaged and we follow their lab numbers to know if our therapies are helping or hurting.

I submit, however, that most of the blood tests we order are superfluous, and ordered more out of a sense of tradition and availability than any actual medical necessity.

I’m as much to blame as the interns and residents that order these blood tests. I’m part of the culture, though I’d like to think better of myself.

When I was an intern, I learned quickly to order a CBC (“Complete Blood Count”) and BMP (“Basic Metabolic Panel,” formerly known as a “Chem-7″ or “SMA-7″) on nearly every patient every day they were in the hospital, lest the attending chew me out for not having the data ready by the time we were on morning rounds together. It only takes one embarrassment like that to change behavior. Fear of failure induces interns to systematically order labs on all their patients so they don’t pick and choose and thereby omit the wrong case.

It’s a game of laboratory roulette every morning — one in which no intern wants to get caught without chips on all the numbers if at all possible.

Beside the unfortunate human cost of all this blood drawing, what does a financial analysis reveal?

Turns out the cost (and revenue!) of having a patient in the hospital dwarfs the cost of obtaining and running the lab tests on the margin. So, for any one patient, scrutinizing lab draws doesn’t feel like much of a cost-saving measure. But, in the aggregate, it could actually make a world of difference.

Changing culture is hard. As a teaching attending only a small fraction of what I teach to my residents will stick. So I feel it important to choose my battles wisely. Preaching about the human and financial costs of superfluous lab testing has a nagging feel to it. I know that people tune out nagging, especially when it runs counter to their prevailing habits and survival instincts.

Stay tuned to GlassHospital to find out if I can summon any administrative will to change this culture, saving both patient agony and medical money.

John Schumann is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at GlassHospital.

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