Overuse of Medicine
Via Newmark's Door, here's a NY Times story on some of the incentives that lead to the overuse of medicine:
I recently took care of a 50-year-old man who had been admitted to the hospital short of breath. During his monthlong stay he was seen by a hematologist, an endocrinologist, a kidney specialist, a podiatrist, two cardiologists, a cardiac electrophysiologist, an infectious-diseases specialist, a pulmonologist, an ear-nose-throat specialist, a urologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist, a nutritionist, a general surgeon, a thoracic surgeon and a pain specialist.
He underwent 12 procedures, including cardiac catheterization, a pacemaker implant and a bone-marrow biopsy (to work-up chronic anemia).
Despite this wearying schedule, he maintained an upbeat manner, walking the corridors daily with assistance to chat with nurses and physician assistants. When he was discharged, follow-up visits were scheduled for him with seven specialists.
This man’s case, in which expert consultations sprouted with little rhyme, reason or coordination, reinforced a lesson I have learned many times since entering practice: In our health care system, where doctors are paid piecework for their services, if you have a slew of physicians and a willing patient, almost any sort of terrible excess can occur.
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Overutilization is driven by many factors — “defensive” medicine by doctors trying to avoid lawsuits; patients’ demands; a pervading belief among doctors and patients that newer, more expensive technology is better.
The most important factor, however, may be the perverse financial incentives of our current system.
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Not long ago, I visited a friend — a cardiologist in his late 30s — at his office on Long Island to ask him about imaging in private practices.
“When I started in practice, I wanted to do the right thing,” he told me matter-of-factly. “A young woman would come in with palpitations. I’d tell her she was fine. But then I realized that she’d just go down the street to another physician and he’d order all the tests anyway: echocardiogram, stress test, Holter monitor — stuff she didn’t really need. Then she’d go around and tell her friends what a great doctor — a thorough doctor — the other cardiologist was.
“I tried to practice ethical medicine, but it didn’t help. It didn’t pay, both from a financial and a reputation standpoint.”
His nuclear imaging camera was in an adjoining “procedure” room. He broke down the monthly costs for me: camera lease, $4,500; treadmill lease, $400; office space, $1,000; technician fee, $1,800; nurse fee, $1,000; and miscellaneous expenses of $200.
“Now say I get on average $850 per nuclear stress test,” he said. “Then I have to do at least 10 stress tests a month just to cover the costs, no profit going into my pocket.”
“So,” I said, “there’s pressure on you to do more than 10 stress tests a month, whether your patients need it or not.”
He shrugged and said, “That is what I have to do to break even.”