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Tag: Unnecessary tests

The Problem with Transformation

Eric Topol wrote a post recently put up on THCB where he looks to a future enabled by emerging technology.

Just as the little mobile wireless devices radically transformed our day-to-day lives, so will such devices have a seismic impact on the future of health care. It’s already taking off at a pace that parallels the explosion of another unanticipated digital force — social networks.

Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed.

Now, I am the first to confess my infatuation with technology.  I am also a very big believer in patient empowerment, which could be the one force strong enough to overcome the partisan politicians and corporate lobbyists resisting any positive change.  But there are several problems I see with this kind of empowerment with technology.

First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place.  Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money.  Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible.  The technology mentioned in the article is predominantly data-gathering technology, increasing the amount of information moving from patient to physician.  The hope is that this will enable faster and better informed decisions, and perhaps some of it will.  But I can see harm coming out of this as well.

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The Testing Glut

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.

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