March 04, 2018

When Skim Milk Masquerades as Cream

         Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed just over 2000 people between the ages of 50 and 80 to find out whether they thought physicians prescribe too much, too little, or just the right amount. What they found is surprising.
         Contemporary wisdom holds that physicians are aware that they order unnecessary tests, recommend too many procedures, and prescribe too many medications. They  behave this way, practicing “low value medicine,” in large measure because this is what patients demand. Respecting autonomy, physicians argue, compels them to accede to patients’ wishes—together with the fear of malpractice suits. The new study suggests both that many patients are aware that their physicians over-treat them and that they don’t want those unnecessary treatments. Fully one quarter of those surveyed said their own physicians over-treat, and double that number said that physicians in general over-treat. One in six said within the last year, their doctor had advised them to have a test or take a drug that was unnecessary. But half of those admitted to doing what they were told to do. By contrast, just under ten percent of those surveyed said their physician had declined to order a test or medicine that the patients felt was indicated.
         We already had fairly good evidence that the fear of lawsuits was greatly over-stated: if physicians explain why they don’t believe a test or drug to be warranted and document the conversation, the chance of being sued for failing to order whatever it was that they didn’t recommend is very slim. Now we have fairly good evidence that it isn’t patient pressure that is influencing physician behavior. The “Choosing Wisely” campaign, which encourages physicians to talk to patients about why the patients shouldn’t be requesting various tests, has it backwards.
           Physicians need to look in the mirror and recognize that we are the problem. We need to stop arguing to ourselves that it’s better to be safe than sorry or that more is better than less. Even relatively non-invasive tests have risks and even moderately inexpensive medications have costs. The older the patient and the greater the number of co-morbid conditions, the more likely a test is to have side effects. And even the small ticket items add up when they are performed very often. “Low value” care isn’t really low value; it’s just bad medicine.