Recent studies performed by researchers at Duke University have proven that the above problem may not be shared by physicians. If a doctor purchases equipment, such as expensive heart-testing or imaging equipment, they use it. In fact, it appears that these doctors may be using their equipment regardless of whether the patient needs the testing or not.
That’s what I call discipline.
USA Today reported this past week about a Duke University study of 500 MRI scans that had been performed on patients with lower back pain. The researchers were trying to determine whether doctors who own the equipment order more tests than those who don’t. You bet they did. Almost twice as many normal results (106 vs. 57) were found on scans ordered by doctors with an economic incentive than by those who didn’t.
The article notes that MRI scanning equipment carries a price tag of over $1,000,000 and that the patient or insurer is charged about $2,000 per test. Once you’ve got the equipment, you might as well use it, just to be safe.
Consumer Reports carried a similar story in early November. Duke University researchers reviewed the health insurance records of 18,000 health patients. The original study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“…the researchers found that patients of doctors who billed for both technical and professional fees – an indication that the doctors owned the medical equipment themselves – were more than twice as likely to undergo a nuclear stress test and more than seven times as likely to undergo stress echocardiography than patients of doctors who did not bill for those fees.”
A July 25th article in Washington Post notes that unnecessary tests don’t just waste money. There are also the risks of false positives that lead to further unneeded procedures including surgery.
Whether we are discussing lower back pain or heart problems, the patient is always his/her best advocate. But when you are in pain or when you have been diagnosed with a heart problem and coming to terms with your own mortality, are you going to ask the doctor if a test is really necessary? Or, are you going to do what you are told, especially if the test is being paid by your insurance?
This is part of cost containment. It doesn’t matter whether insurers or the government is paying the bill. An aging population is going to have more conditions, not less. And doctors, unchecked, are going to order more tests, not less.
There are doctors that will point to the risk of lawsuits as for their motivation to order so many tests. Yes, tort reform is also an important part of cost containment.
As of today, December 5, 2011, there has been precious little done to control costs. The authors of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act may not understand why the price of health care continues to rise. But then again, there are lots of suburbanites who don’t understand why they haven’t lost any weight. They bought the StairMaster. It is in their bedroom. Under the towels.