A 2019 study estimated that overtreatment and “low value” testing costs the U.S. between $75 and $100 Billion annually. Why should you care? You should care because this means that the cost of your health insurance and your out-of-pocket costs go up to pay for this unnecessary treatment and testing.
We will leave treatment to another post and focus on over-testing. Unnecessary or low-value tests are those which are very unlikely to make you live longer or feel better.
Such over-testing is ubiquitous, but one area is “routine” pre-operative testing. Clearly if you have evidence of bad heart or lungs and are being asked to have a risky surgery, your doctor may need tests to determine if you can safely undergo surgery. That, however, accounts for only a tiny fraction of pre-op testing.
The vast majority of pre-operative testing is done on relatively healthy people who are about to have low-risk surgery such as hernia repairs or cataract extractions. Decades ago, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, in conjunction with the anesthesiology societies, published guidelines recommending against pre-op stress testing for most patients, and even advised against routine ECGs. While some hospitals have tried to reduce such testing, the overall impact of these recommendations has been minor.
In many cases, asking a few questions, such as “can you walk up 2 flights of stairs without problems” will avoid the need for most heart and lung testing before surgery.
Why do so many unnecessary tests continue to be ordered? Some of the incentive is financial. Doctors and hospitals are paid more when they do more. As long as this perverse incentive continues, there will be pressure to do more. Research has demonstrated that doctors who own MRI machines order many more MRI studies. If I were paid by the word to write, you can bet this post would be much longer.
The other factor is cultural. Doctors have been conditioned to believe that “It cannot hurt to get more information.” While an occasional extra blood test may not cost much or harm you, some invasive tests carry risk, and the added cost and inconvenience of any test is not trivial if you take off time from work or drive a distance. Another under-appreciated factor is that many “routine” tests turn up unexpected minor abnormalities that are not significant, but which require other tests to prove this.
What can you do? Before agreeing to any test, ask how the results will change your treatment.
For anything but blood tests or plain X-rays, ask if there is any risk to the test.
Ask if there are simpler alternatives.
Ask if there is any harm in waiting a bit. Many illnesses are self-limited, and the doctor will often be certain you have nothing serious but orders tests “to be sure.”
If the recommended test is invasive, such as cardiac catheterization, consider asking for a second opinion before you agree to have it.
Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon