A physician’s solution for excessive care

“Please Sir, I want some more.”

Rob Lamberts, MD is a very thoughtful and practical primary-care physician. Here are Rob's most important rules to battle excessive treatment (and the associated risks):

Americans have been viewing health care the same way, always wanting more: more antibiotics, more technology, more robots doing more surgery, more expensive treatments for more diseases. The result: health care costs more in America than anywhere else. Some folks think that our “more” approach makes our health care “the best in the world,” after all, where else can you get so many tests just by asking. MRI’s for back pain, x-rays for coughs, blood tests for anyone who dons the door of the ER. ”Tests for everyone!” shouts the bartender. “Tests are on the house! ”

They aren’t, of course, and we are paying the price for “more.” This hunger for “more” is fueled by the media’s fascination for the “latest thing,” the long disproved idea that technology will solve everything, and docs who aren’t willing to take time to explain why it’s actually better to do less. It’s hard to do, when we are paid more to spend less time with patients, and when the system is willing to pay for more and more.

There is a voice against this: the “Choosing Wisely” campaign, which argues against unnecessary treatments and tests. This is a welcome voice of reason in the cacophony of cries for “more.” Yet the battle goes against the irresistible tide of our payment system. The root problem is this: there are a whole lot of people whose jobs depend on America’s addiction to “more.” The payment system has created an ecosystem that thrives off of waste (of which I once wrote an allegorical fantasy). True health care reform will be catastrophic to many who work in health care, with many very nice and hard-working Americans losing their jobs at the ACO factory, at Meaningful Use Inc., and even at Stents-R-Us hospital here in my home town.

This is what you get when you make disease more profitable than health, when we treat problems instead of people. The simple fact that our system would be destroyed if everyone got healthy should tell us something is terribly wrong. Doctors want their offices full, not empty. The goal of every patient – to be healthy and to stay away from the doctor – goes directly against the economics of “more.”

I have always tried to be a non-test orderer. I was trained well by docs who believed it weak-minded and bad care to blithely order tests and prescribe medications without a well-defined reason. This has always made it harder for me, as it’s far more time-consuming to explain why a drug or test is not needed than to simply order it. But in my new world, one in which an empty office is a good thing, I’ve found my patients much more open to my aversion to “more.” The main reason for this is that I am giving them more of me. More of me means they can call if they don’t get better, or if their symptoms develop. They know I won’t force them to take more of their time and spend more of their money to get my attention.

Ultimately, I want my patients to see as few doctors, be sick as infrequently, and be on as few drugs as possible. I hope to wage an all-out assault on “more.”

  • Never order a test that doesn’t help you decide something important. Ordering tests “just to know” does much more harm than good.
  • Use consultants only to do things you can’t. Orthopedists will aways give an NSAID and physical therapy for problems, so I don’t send patients to them unless they’ve failed those treatments (where appropriate). I am just as good at ordering PT, and am more careful with NSAID prescriptions than they are.
  • Don’t give a patient a drug without explaining to them why they need it. If I can’t make a good case for a drug, I shouldn’t be giving it. This is not simply “to lower your cholesterol,” or “to treat your blood pressure,” but because doing so will raise your life-expectency.
  • Remember the number that really matters: how many birthdays a person gets to celebrate in health. I don’t care about blood pressure, LDL, or even A1c if treating it doesn’t raise the birthday total.
  • Don’t forget about another number: how much money patients have in their wallets. There’s no point in ordering a drug they can’t afford, or making them pay for a test they don’t need (even when they ask for either).


2 thoughts on “A physician’s solution for excessive care

  1. I shall respond by relating one of my experiences with excessive and expensive testing and treatment for which Medicate and Medigap paid in full.

    When I had a bladder infection, I saw a nurse practicioner because it was impossible to get an appointment to see my own physician and I did not want to wait for six or more hours in emergency. The NP, quite reasonably, prescribed an antibiotic. Unfortunately, I had unpleasant, but not dangerous, reactions to it, i.e., mild nausea and a moderate headache. Both were known possible reactions.

    Because of the reactions, the NP quite reasonably prescribed a different antibiotic. Then began the unnecessary tests and procedures. To alleviate the headache, she gave me an injection and put me on O2 for half an hour. Then, she sent me to have an MRI done of my brain to see whether the headache might have been caused by a brain abnormality. Next, she had a doppler test done of my carotid arteries to see whether my brain was getting enough blood.

    The unnecessary MRI alone cost $2500! The other stuff no doubt added at least $500. I did not feel free to object to all this since if I had, I might have been branded as uncooperative which could have reduced the quality of medical care I would receive.

    If this sort of thing is common, and I suspect that it is, it’s no wonder that we spend so much on medical care here in the U.S. and yet in some countries which spend less on medical care, the people are more healthy. Obviously something should change.

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