Choosing Wisely: Physician Groups Make Recommendations to Reduce Healthcare Costs

by Nyedra W. Booker, PharmD, MPH

 

  • Does an 18-year-old girl need a pap smear?
  • Should a patient with a mild sinus infection be given antibiotics?

You might be surprised that the answer to both questions is NO according to leading physicians.

In an effort to improve medical care in the U.S. and save healthcare dollars at the same time, 25 U.S. medical groups each has proposed a list of Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question. This is a bold move by medical groups who collectively represent almost three quarters of a million physicians. Currently, doctors are paid more for ordering more tests and diagnostic procedures, so these recommendations  are not financially beneficial to the physicians involved, but have the potential for reducing the cost of medical care for patients, health insurance companies, and government health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans healthcare.

The medical groups represent a wide range of medical care.  The nine groups include the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American Academy of Family Physicians; American College of Cardiology; American College of Physicians; American College of Radiology; American Gastroenterological Association; American Society of Clinical Oncology; American Society of Nephrology and the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology.

Here are just a few of the 135 recommendations that have been publicized so far:

Hives - Routine diagnostic testing (such as immunoglobulin E (IgE), a skin prick or blood test for allergies) is not recommended for patients with chronic hives, because such testing is usually ineffective at identifying the cause. [American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology]

Pap Smears - Routine pap smears to screen for cervical cancer are not recommended for women under the age of 21. [American Academy of Family Physicians]

Cardiac Stress Test - Cardiac stress test imaging (a procedure where dye is inserted into the blood stream and images show how well the blood is flowing through the heart) is not recommended for cardiac patients at their annual check-ups unless symptoms are present. [American College of Cardiology]

X-Rays and MRIs for Back Pain - Imaging (X-rays, MRIs) is not recommended for a patient with lower back pain unless a specific cause has been identified. [American College of Physicians]

MRIs and CCTs of the Brain - Imaging of the brain, including MRIs and CCTs (cranial computed tomography), is not recommended for a patient with a headache unless specific risk factors have been identified. [American College of Radiology]

Colorectal Cancer Screening- Colorectal cancer screening by any method (including flexible sigmoidoscopy, computed tomography colonography, double-contrast barium enema test) should be repeated every 10 years in low to average-risk patients who received a normal result at their last colonoscopy screening.  This is less frequently than previous recommendations.  It is recommended that people get their first colonoscopy at age 50. [American Gastroenterological Association]

Breast Cancer Testing - Imaging (PET, CT and radionuclide bone scans) is not recommended for patients with early-stage breast cancer at low risk for metastasis (cancer spreading to other parts of the body). [American Society of Clinical Oncology]

Cancer Screening - Routine cancer screenings (including colonoscopy, mammography and pap smears) are not recommended for patients on dialysis who have a short life expectancy, unless specific signs and symptoms are present. [American Society of Nephrology]

Chest Pains - Routine cardiac imaging including a stress echocardiogram (which  uses ultrasound to show how well the heart is pumping blood) is not recommended for a patient with chest pains who is at low risk for a heart attack or cardiac-related death, is able to exercise, and has a normal electrocardiogram (EKG).[1] [American Society of Nuclear Cardiology]

A complete list of all 135 recommendations is available at: http://choosingwisely.org

How will this help?

Healthcare spending in the United States reached almost $2.6 trillion in 2010 and is expected to rise to around $4.6 trillion by 2020 unless major changes are made to eliminate unnecessary procedures, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.[2] An increase in the number of people living with chronic illnesses, rising prescription drug prices, and the high administrative costs of managing healthcare programs will contribute to increasing costs. While many continue to debate the exact reasons why healthcare spending is out of control, most agree that something needs to be done immediately.

Choosing Wisely® grew out of a 2009 project by the National Physicians Alliance and funded by the ABIM Foundation called “Promoting Good Stewardship in Medicine.” The Project sought to identify five steps that primary care physicians could take in their daily practices that would help doctors and patients attain “excellent care that we can afford together.” Consumer Reports magazine joined these two organizations as leaders in this campaign.

While many doctors and health experts understand that more medical care, and more expensive medical care, is not necessarily better medical care, studies show that the American public is wary of health care guidelines, even when they’re based on strong evidence. Patients and consumers tend to assume that running more tests and relying on newer, more costly technologies translate into health improvements (see Is Newer and More Expensive Care Better?).  As for doctors, the need to pay for expensive new imaging devices by charging for their use, the desire to give patients a clear diagnosis, and concerns about harming a patient by missing a diagnosis can all contribute to ordering unnecessary imaging and other tests.

Given this divide, it’s not surprising that Choosing Wisely has generated praise and concern. While many are praising the initiative as a step in the right direction to reduce the staggering cost of healthcare in the U.S., others question whether these cost-cutting strategies will come at the expense of good patient care.

Next Steps

The American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation and the National Physicians Alliance will continue to work with the nine medical specialty groups and several partnering organizations, including Consumer Reports and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), to develop tools and resources to help physicians discuss healthcare decisions with their patients. There will also be at least eight additional medical specialty groups joining the initiative and releasing their recommendations in the fall of 2012.


[1] Choosing Wisely: An Initiative of the ABIM Foundation. Accessed April 04, 2012. http://choosingwisely.org/?page_id=13.

[2] Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “National Health Expenditure Projections 2010-2020.” Accessed April 09, 2012. https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/Downloads/proj2010.pdf