The Costs of Unnecessary Care –What’s Wrong with “I want everything ruled out?”

A great article for understanding a lot of what needs to be improved in our health care system –“America’s Epidemic of Unnecessary Care” from Atul Gawande & The New Yorker (Thanks to Kayla Lewis for this reference).  Here are some excerpts:

Well, as a doctor, I am far more concerned about doing too little than doing too much. It’s the scan, the test, the operation that I should have done that sticks with me—sometimes for years…It is different, however, when I think about my experience as a patient or a family member.


Dr. Gawande describes several anecdotes:

  • He relates how his mother had unnecessary testing done and only afterwards was a history and physical completed that would have obviated the need for any testing.
  • He relates a story about his friend Bruce. Bruce’s father had a stroke during cardiac surgery. However, the likelihood of that surgery helping Bruce’s father was much lower than the risk of surgery.
  • Ray from Car Talk: Even reputable professionals with the best intentions tend toward overkill, he said. To illustrate the point, he, too, had a medical story to tell. Eight months earlier, he’d torn a meniscus in his knee doing lunges…Ray went for a second opinion, to a physical therapist, who, of course, favored physical therapy, just as the surgeon favored surgery. Ray chose physical therapy.  What Ray recommended to his car-owning listeners was the approach that he adopted as a patient—caveat emptor. He did his research. He made informed choices. He tried to be a virtuous patient.

Other Important Points:

  • The virtuous patient is up against long odds, however. One major problem is what economists call information asymmetry. In 1963, Kenneth Arrow, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, demonstrated the severe disadvantages that buyers have when they know less about a good than the seller does.
  • The United States is a country of three hundred million people who annually undergo around fifteen million nuclear medicine scans, a hundred million CT and MRI scans, and almost ten billion laboratory tests. Often, these are fishing expeditions, and since no one is perfectly normal you tend to find a lot of fish.
  • What’s more, the value of any test depends on how likely you are to be having a significant problem in the first place…Experts recommend against doing electrocardiograms on healthy people, but millions are done each year, anyway.
  • Overtesting has also created a new, unanticipated problem: overdiagnosis. This isn’t misdiagnosis—the erroneous diagnosis of a disease. This is the correct diagnosis of a disease that is never going to bother you in your lifetime. 

Dr. Gawande explains how some conditions (including cancers) are more like turtles and some are more like rabbits. Diagnosing a turtle results in increased risk, increased cost and little likelihood of benefit.

  • With regard to cost, he updates the situation in McAllen, Tx: Six years ago, in “The Cost Conundrum,” I compared McAllen with another Texas border town, El Paso. They had the same demographics—the same levels of severe poverty, poor health, illegal immigration—but El Paso had half the per-capita Medicare costs and the same or better results…McAllen, in large part because of changes led by primary-care doctors, has gone from a cautionary tale to something more hopeful.

Take-home point (from article): Right now, we’re so wildly over the boundary line in the other direction that it’s hard to see how we could accept leaving health care the way it is. Waste is not just consuming a third of health-care spending; it’s costing people’s lives. As long as a more thoughtful, more measured style of medicine keeps improving outcomes, change should be easy to cheer for. Still, when it’s your turn to sit across from a doctor, in the white glare of a clinic, with your back aching, or your head throbbing, or a scan showing some small possible abnormality, what are you going to fear more—the prospect of doing too little or of doing too much?

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1 thought on “The Costs of Unnecessary Care –What’s Wrong with “I want everything ruled out?”

  1. Pingback: “Some Hospitals Marking Up Treatments By as Much as 1000%” | gutsandgrowth

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