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“Just In Case” Heart Tests: Can They Do More Harm Than Good?

Here’s an important equation that all of us — doctors include — should know about healthcare, but don’t:

More ≠ Better

“More does not equal better” applies to diagnostic procedures, screening tests meant to identify problems before they appear, medications, dietary supplements, and just about every aspect of medicine.

That scenario is spelled out in alarming detail in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Clinicians at the Cleveland Clinic describe the case of a 52-year-old woman who went to her community hospital because she had been having chest pain for two days. She wasn’t having symptoms of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, unexplained nausea, or a cold sweat, and her electrocardiogram and other tests were fine. The woman’s doctors concluded that her chest pain was probably due to a muscle she had pulled or strained during her recently begun exercise program to lose weight.

To “reassure her” that she wasn’t having a heart attack, the emergency department team recommended she have a CT scan of her heart. This noninvasive procedure can spot narrowings in coronary arteries and other problems that can interfere with blood flow to the heart. When it showed a suspicious area in her left anterior descending artery (a key artery nourishing the heart), she underwent a coronary angiogram. This involves inserting a thin wire called a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin and deftly maneuvering it into the heart. Once in place, equipment on the catheter is used to make pictures of blood flow through the coronary arteries. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Alzheimer’s Disease: To Test Or Not To Test?

The medical profession’s ability to diagnose far exceeds its ability to effectively treat the conditions discovered. Consider arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, strokes, emphysema, and many cancers.

When a physician orders a diagnostic test, ideally it should be to answer a specific question, rather than a buckshot approach. A chest X-ray is not ordered because a patient has a cough. It should be done because the test has a reasonable chance of yielding information that would change the physician’s advice. If the doctor was going to prescribe an antibiotic anyway, then why order the chest X-ray?

Physicians and patients should ask before a test is performed if the information is likely to change the medical management. In other words, is a test being ordered because physicians want to know or because we really need to know the results?

Does every patient with a heart murmur, for example, need an echocardiogram, even though this test would be easy to justify to patients and to insurance companies? If the test won’t change anything, then it costs dollars and makes no sense. Spine X-rays for acute back strains are an example of a radiologic reflex. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at MD Whistleblower*

Unscientific Medicine: What’s The Harm?

Any promoter of science-based medicine often faces the question: “What’s the harm?” What is the harm if people try treatment modalities that are not based upon good science, that are anecdotal, or provide only a placebo benefit? There are generally two premises to this question. The first is that most “alternative” placebo interventions are directly harmless. The second is that direct harm is the only type worth considering. Both of these premises are wrong.

The pages of Science Based Medicine (SBM) are filled with accounts of direct harm from unscientific treatments: Argyria from colloidal silver, death from chelation therapy, infection or other complications from acupuncture, burns from ear candleing, stroke from chiropractic neck manipulation — the list goes on. You can read anecdotal accounts of such harm on the website,

Of course, as we often point out, harm and risk is only one end of the equation — one must also consider benefit. It is the risk-benefit ratio of an intervention that is important. But generally we are talking about interventions that lack any evidence for benefit, and therefore any risk of harm is arguably unacceptable. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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