Are we being harmed because we receive too much, instead of too little, medical care?
For many Americans, the answer is increasingly "yes."
Just last month, a new study showed a link between the iodine contrast that patients receive for routine medical scans and thyroid disease. Researchers found that people with thyroid disease were two to three times as likely to have received this agent than those who did not develop it. Only two years prior, another study in the same journal, Archives of Internal Medicine, estimated that radiation from medical scans was responsible for up to 30,000 new cases of cancer and 15,000 deaths every year.
Such scans and medical procedures are necessary and even life-saving for many of the patients who receive them. For many others, however, they are not. These patients end up undergoing medical interventions that do not benefit them yet still put them at risk for serious complications.
I have seen such complications as a physician. One of my patients suffered kidney failure and required lifelong dialysis because of medications that he had unnecessarily received years ago. Others incurred heart damage or infections from procedures that they did not need.
Unnecessary medical care is common in our country. It accounts for more than $200 billion in health care spending every year, according to the Institute of Medicine. Yet the uncertainties of modern medicine make it difficult for us to determine when an intervention is necessary and when it is not. That task is rightly left to the clinical judgment of individual physicians.
There are cases, however, where the medical literature renders a clear verdict. Certain interventions, such as antibiotics for viral respiratory infections, have been studied repeatedly and found to be of no benefit to patients. Other examples include cardiac stents for cases of mild chest pain and certain procedures for back pain.
Yet, despite the evidence against their effectiveness, such interventions persist. For example, there were more than 100,000 recorded cases of vertebroplasty -- a back procedure that was recently shown to be of no benefit to patients -- performed in one year. In another example, a recent study documented up to 75,000 cases of patients receiving cardiac stents for inappropriate reasons. The complications from these two procedures, while rare, include blood clots, bleeding and even death.
These unnecessary medical interventions are largely a result of our distorted system of paying for medical care. Under the current "fee for service" model, insurers reimburse hospitals and doctors based on the volume of interventions they perform. It is easy to understand why this incentivizes more tests and procedures across the medical system without enough attention paid to whether patients end up benefiting.
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