Before ordering a test, know what to do with the result

Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein

As medical students rotating through the wards, we spent a significant portion of each day ordering laboratory tests and then chasing down the results. We wanted to investigate our patients’ illnesses and, just as importantly, we wanted to be prepared for any question with which our professors might surprise us during Attending Rounds.

One day, as I was hurriedly checking boxes on a laboratory order form, my resident challenged me to justify one of the blood tests I was requesting. “You can order that test after you answer these two simple questions …” His eyes narrowed. “First of all, what exactly are you going to do with the results? And, second, who is going to pay for it?”

He became increasingly impatient while quizzing me about all of the potential outcomes. Clearly, I would need to spend my afternoon reading in the library. I also admitted that I had no idea how much the test would cost or whether the patient’s insurance would provide coverage. It turned out that this was, indeed, a very expensive blood test that was only performed in an out-of-state laboratory. The results would not be available for several days. Checking that box would have cost the patient several hundred dollars; by the time the result was available, it would have been all but meaningless. “Aha!” my resident chided me triumphantly, “Do you still want that test? You need to make an effort to understand the impact and cost of everything you order.” I had learned a lesson and sheepishly tore up the slip.

My memorable medical school incident came back to me last week while reading an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Howard Brody reminds us that high-cost care is not necessarily better care and that a study of regional variation recently showed that “nearly one third of health care costs could be saved without depriving any patient of beneficial care.” Cost-effective care is possible.

Since physicians order tests, Brody suggests physicians need to be at the forefront to curb healthcare expenses. As a start, he proposes that each medical specialty create a “Top Five” list of its most commonly ordered, expensive tests and treatments for which there is little evidence of any meaningful benefit. The specialty would then be charged with educating its own members.  In “In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit.” In the best of worlds, this approach represents utilization oversight driven by providers rather than insurers or government.

Resource consumption — be it money, time, supplies, or energy — is a real-life dilemma in every medical center; in medical care, there are just so many places where simple decisions carry a fiscal wallop. Three quick examples: Technology is routinely touted as providing improved safety and efficiency, but, sometimes, it adds cost without any proven benefit whatsoever. Adding one more test or ordering one more consultation at the end of a clinic visit “just to be certain” quickly adds up when repeated hundreds of times each month. And, of course, any provider who can spell “PET Scan” can order one.

We can all play a role in cutting costs. I tend to avoid technology unless I can show that it is truly going to benefit a particular patient. For example, I recently saw a patient for a second opinion. His community physician had recommended an extremely expensive test. After reviewing his records, I told him that there was no reason to have the test performed. He was understandably skeptical. “Why did the other doctor think I needed it?” He frowned. “She said it would be very useful. Shouldn’t you order it anyway?” We had a long conversation. Deciding not to “do something” can be a hard sell.

Even now as we engage in a national discussion about health care, it seems that the questions still come down to these two: What exactly are you going to do with the results? Who is going to pay for it? On both an individual level and as a society where we all depend on each other, these two questions are just as relevant — and difficult — today as they were when my resident made me stop and think about a box that I had checked on a laboratory slip so many years ago.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

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