In case you missed it, a recommendation came out last month that physicians cut back on using 45 common tests and treatments. In addition, patients were advised to question doctors who recommend such things as antibiotics for mild sinusitis, CT scans for an uncomplicated headache or a repeat colonoscopy within 10 years of a normal exam.
The general idea wasn’t all that new — my colleagues and I have been questioning many of the same tests and treatments for years. What was different this time was the source of the recommendations. They came from the heart of the medical profession: the medical specialty boards and societies representing cardiologists, radiologists, gastroenterologists and other doctors. In other words, they came from the very groups that stand to benefit from doing more, not less.
Nine specialty societies contributed five recommendations each to the list (others are expected to contribute in the future). The recommendations each started with the word “don’t” — as in “don’t perform,” “don’t order,” “don’t recommend.”
Could American medicine be changing?
For years, medical organizations have been developing recommendations and guidelines focused on things doctors should do. The specialty societies have been focused on protecting the financial interests of their most profligate members and have been reluctant to acknowledge the problem of overuse. Maybe they are now owning up to the problem.
My mother’s oncologist ordered the blood test, carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), to check for the recurrence of colon cancer. The good news was that there was no evidence of recurrence. The bad news was that she didn’t have colon cancer.
She had breast cancer.
Though she was feeling better, the chemotherapy and radiation had taken its toll. For the past couple of months, she had experienced constant nausea and vomiting. During and after treatment, her hands and feet felt like they were on fire. Many times she wanted to give up and quit. Yet she persevered and felt emotionally stronger after the ordeal. She started to feel like herself again. Life began to have some normalcy. Until an insurance bill appeared asking for hundreds of dollars.
Apparently over the past year, her oncologist had routinely ordered the CEA test multiple times as part of her cancer follow-up. When she called to contest the charge, the insurer told her to talk to her doctor. She didn’t know this test was unnecessary until the bill. And until she called me, her son, a primary care doctor.
She asked her oncologist about the repeated blood tests. He simply shrugged. No apologies. No explanation. No acknowledgment of the error. Didn’t he get the lab results of the CEA? Shouldn’t he have been aware that the test was not relevant for her care?
“What am I going to do now Doc?” asked Mike, a down on his luck, 29 year–old recently unemployed truck driver, as he handed me his hospital bill.
Mike was seen at our local emergency department on a Friday evening with complaints of indigestion. Earlier that day he and his wife Susan celebrated their second anniversary by splitting a store bought pepperoni pizza. Mike had just lost his job and his wife, already working two jobs, managed to keep them afloat. When Mike later complained of indigestion, Susan became alarmed. She had just read about the symptoms of heart disease in the local paper. Mike wanted to get some antacids but Susan demanded he go to the hospital. Mike stated he initially protested, but when it came to his health he looked to his wife for advice.
He said he wanted her to drive him to the hospital and told me his wife wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re going to call 911, she told him. “You could die on the way to the hospital.” Now, Mike admitted, that made him scared and he quickly agreed. Fifteen minutes later he was on a gurney rolling through the double doors of the emergency department.
Physical assessment by the emergency resident physician came quickly followed by an EKG, chest x-ray, CT scan of the chest (“they said I might have had a blood clot”), and lab, specifically including cardiac enzymes. Mike said his only complaint was it took over five hours before he heard any news.Continue reading…