The Associated Press has been running a fantastic series of must reads with the latest article highlighting the consequence of too many imaging studies, like X-rays and CT scans, which are the biggest contributor to an individual’s total radiation exposure in a lifetime. Americans get more imaging radiation exposure and testing than people from other industrialized countries.
Reasons for doing too many tests include malpractice fear, patient demands for imaging, the difficulty in obtaining imaging results from other doctors or hospitals, as well as advanced technologies, like coronary angioplasty, which have increased radiation but avoid a far more invasive surgery like heart bypass.
Although these are all legitimate concerns, one of the reasons listed was:
“Accuracy and ease of use. Scans have become a crutch for doctors afraid of using exams and judgment to make a diagnosis. Some think a picture tells more than it does. Imaging that shows arthritis in a knee or back problems doesn’t reveal how to make it better, said Dr. Richard Baron, a primary care doctor in Philadelphia.”
Dr. Baron was recently widely cited for his article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the true workload of primary care doctors which gives valid reasons why medical students as well as those in practice are avoiding the specialty or retiring respectively.
It really isn’t accuracy and ease of use as Dr. Baron suggests, but rather a matter of survival for doctors on the front line. The vast majority doctors are paid fee for service. That is the more you do the more you get paid. In the case of primary care doctors, the more patients you see the more you get paid.
It has been argued that if primary care doctors were paid a salary instead of by number of patient visits that more time could be spent on asking the right questions and doing thorough examinations to get to the root of a patients problem. When I train first-year medical students, I tell them exactly the same thing: If there is only one thing you learn from me, then it is how to take an accurate history and a relevant physical exam. Ninety percent of getting the right diagnosis is refining these two skills.
Students often ask how long it takes to be good at this. A lifetime. Professional athletes, artists, and musicians never stop getting better and as doctors neither should we.
Why is this important? Because the latest thought in healthcare is to slow costs by pushing more financial responsibility to patients. A report by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that majority employees will face a deductible of $400 or more, which is in addition to the annual premiums. Will patients really be able to ask or even challenge their doctors on the appropriateness of an imaging study? Do you ever tell your auto mechanic to not service your car when the airbag indicator or the brake light come on? (If you have, please let me know because I certainly didn’t have the courage to do so).
The other thought is to make prices for procedures more transparent as start-up Castlight tries to do. Shop around for the cheapest imaging study. Although this also is a laudable approach to slow healthcare costs, it is also not addressing the root cause. Doctors are ordering too many tests. Though price transparency will make the unit cost of the test cheaper, Americans will still be overdosed with radiation.
Doctors need to step up and lead the way. They cannot until the reimbursement system changes that values primary care for time spent thoughtfully evaluating patients by talking and examining them. As Dr. Abraham Verghese of Stanford Medical School and an outstanding clinician notes, it is the patient’s story that matter not the imaging tests. As he correctly argues in an editorial in the British Medical Journal:
…clinicians who are skilled at the bedside examination make better use of diagnostic tests and order fewer unnecessary tests. If, for example, you recognise that the patient’s chest pain is confined to a dermatome and is associated with hyperaesthesia, and if you spot a few early vesicles looking like dew drops on rose petals, you have diagnosed varicella zoster and spared the patient the electrocardiography, measurement of cardiac enzymes, chest radiography, spiral computed tomography, and the use of contrast that might otherwise be inevitable. And so many clinical signs, such as rebound tenderness, lid lag, tremor, clubbing, or hemiparesis cannot be discerned by any imaging test.
To avoid overtreatment and save money, find a superb primary care doctor will to talk to you about the pros and cons of medications, imaging tests, and procedures. Be thankful he or she did. As the Associated Press series of “overtreated” articles illustrate, sometimes it is best not to keep up with the Joneses and walk away from too many tests while still staying healthy.
Can’t find a stellar primary care doctor? No worries. The truth on how to avoid the traps of overtreatment are found in my book which is available on Kindle, iPad, and iPhone, as well as hardcover. This easy to read book offers the skills I use to keep my patients healthy while thoughtfully ordering treatments they really need to stay well.
*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*