It didn’t take that long during intern year to realize that something was wrong. As I signed so many orders that my signature, once proudly readable, began its gradual but clear progression towards more abstraction, I eventually started to wonder just how much all of these tests were actually costing my patients. After all, once you start checking boxes on an order sheet, the “calcium/phos/mag” just seems to roll off of the tongue. However, not just how much was this “costing” patients financially, but also in potential risks, harms and adverse effects.
I particularly remember being bothered when told by an Emergency Room attending physician that I had to get the Head CT on my 28-year-old male patient presenting with a benign-sounding headache and a normal physical examination, “unless you could go in there and tell him that you personally can guarantee him with 100% certainty that he does not have something bad like a brain tumor.” This did not seem like a fair bar to hop, particularly having put the M.D. after my name a mere few months prior. So I scribbled my name on another form and with the whisk of my pen subjected this patient to a normal CT head examination, saddling this young man with a significant amount of radiation and a hospital bill that now included an approximately $2,500 imaging charge. Nobody seemed to flinch, but it got me thinking.
He winced in a way that made me feel his discomfort. It wasn’t overly dramatic; it was a response of a man trying to put on a brave face and hide his pain, but – as I gently laid my hands on his belly – failing against his best efforts. This man had real abdominal pain, the kind that is impossible not to immediately empathize with. I got concerned.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked, while my mind began to immediately tick through a differential diagnosis.
“Well it probably started a year ago, but got really bad about four months ago,” this otherwise healthy-appearing, thirty-something-year-old man said.
We were in a small curtained-off area in the hectic Emergency Department at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). I started to wonder what in the world would possibly cause somebody to wait many months with severe abdominal pain and rectal bleeding before coming to see a doctor.
I asked a few more questions, verifying that he was indeed having bright red blood with his bowel movements, had lost at least 10-pounds over the last few months and has dealt with nausea and debilitating abdominal pain ever since the end of last year.
Who doesn’t love a Top 10 list? Creating them is an art form. So when it was formally proposed by Dr. Brody in 2010 in the NEJM that each specialty create their own “Top 5 list” of unnecessary care, it seemed like a straightforward – if not downright provocative – suggestion.
“The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. 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,” he wrote.
And yet, thus far the only groups that have seemed to have taken him up on the suggestion have been the primary care specialties of Internal Medicine, Family Medicine and Pediatrics – notably amongst the least compensated fields in health care.
This is a great start, but c’mon guys, where are the rest of you? Dr. Brody wrote you a “prescription.” We have a term for your behavior: “noncompliance.”
Not to say that there hasn’t been some progress. The ABIM Foundation has indeed put together an impressive list of organizations participating in their “Choosing Wisely” campaign. They also have begun to be instrumental in funding projects towards this goal. Costs of Care has highlighted far-reaching areas of non-value-based care, including a recent thoughtful essay about robotic surgery. We must now consolidate on these small gains and move this forward across all specialties in medicine.