Who are the stewards of healthcare?

Economist-Healthcare-Spending-Waste-Chart

I met a father yesterday in our ED who didn’t want antibiotics for his child’s otitis media.  He had read that a wait and see approach with appropriate analgesia might be a better option, and I was reminded that better stewardship of our healthcare is everyone’s concern.  It made me so happy to see a parent making such an informed choice, rather than thinking to myself (as I sometimes do) about how bad my Press Gainey score was going to be for being “the idiot doctor who didn’t want to give my child antibiotics for an ear infection”.

Our healthcare system is like recycling, carbon emissions or government spending: everyone agrees we should do more with less and be better stewards in theory, but when it comes to practice it’s always someone else’s problem. Is it because the system is so large we don’t feel that our actions matter, or do we feel entitled to use the resources we have, even if they offer no clear benefit to our patients? I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that I still do unnecessary tests everyday in the emergency department.  Some are because of my concerns over missing disease in low risk patients, some are because I’m following “standard of care” or “best practice” based on poor evidence, some are because specialists want them or won’t admit or see the patient without them, sometimes its the end of my shift and it’s the path of least resistance.

The list of why unnecessary testing occurs is long and the vigilance required to stay on course and do what I think is right for each individual patient and the healthcare system as a whole is enormous.  In fact I would say a large percentage of my education time and practice is devoted to this one task.  The difficulty is in finding the support and resources to continue the process of informed and judicious use of medical resources against the onslaught of demands made by an avaricious, RVU/procedure driven, and risk averse healthcare industry.

The New York Times posted on a great resource for both patients and doctors that I believe is worth mentioning.  It is a list of the most commonly overused tests in seventeen different medical specialities.  Emergency Medicine is not one of the specialties listed (although it should be), however there are many emergency department relevant tests listed among the various specialty lists. I find this resource particularly helpful in stemming the tide of what other specialists ask of me in my Emergency Department (like PPI for GI bleed or pre-op echoes in cardiac patients) and in making decisions for why I’m admitting a patient.  If my major reason is an expedited workup with one of these unnecessary tests then perhaps I will think twice.

For example here are the top five recommended DON’Ts from the American College of Radiology:

1. Don’t do imaging for uncomplicated headache.

Imaging headache patients absent specific risk factors for structural disease is not likely to change management or improve outcome. Those patients with a significant likelihood of structural disease requiring immediate attention are detected by clinical screens that have been validated in many settings. Many studies and clinical practice guidelines concur. Also, incidental findings lead to additional medical procedures and expense that do not improve patient well-being.

2. Don’t image for suspected pulmonary embolism (PE) without moderate or high pre-test probability.

While deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and PE are relatively common clinically, they are rare in the absence of elevated blood d-Dimer levels and certain specific risk factors. Imaging, particularly computed tomography (CT) pulmonary angiography, is a rapid, accurate and widely available test, but has limited value in patients who are very unlikely, based on serum and clinical criteria, to have significant value. Imaging is helpful to confirm or exclude PE only for such patients, not for patients with low pre-test probability of PE.

3. Avoid admission or preoperative chest x-rays for ambulatory patients with unremarkable history and physical exam.

Performing routine admission or preoperative chest x-rays is not recommended for ambulatory patients without specific reasons suggested by the history and/or physical examination findings. Only 2 percent of such images lead to a change in management. Obtaining a chest radiograph is reasonable if acute cardiopulmonary disease is suspected or there is a history of chronic stable cardiopulmonary disease in a patient older than age 70 who has not had chest radiography within six months.

4. Don’t do computed tomography (CT) for the evaluation of suspected appendicitis in children until after ultrasound has been considered as an option.

Although CT is accurate in the evaluation of suspected appendicitis in the pediatric population, ultrasound is nearly as good in experienced hands. Since ultrasound will reduce radiation exposure, ultrasound is the preferred initial consideration for imaging examination in children. If the results of the ultrasound exam are equivocal, it may be followed by CT. This approach is cost-effective, reduces potential radiation risks and has excellent accuracy, with reported sensitivity and specificity of 94 percent.

5. Don’t recommend follow-up imaging for clinically inconsequential adnexal cysts.

Simple cysts and hemorrhagic cysts in women of reproductive age are almost always physiologic. Small simple cysts in postmenopausal women are common, and clinically inconsequential. Ovarian cancer, while typically cystic, does not arise from these benign-appearing cysts. After a good quality ultrasound in women of reproductive age, don’t recommend follow-up for a classic corpus luteum or simple cyst <5 cm in greatest diameter. Use 1 cm as a threshold for simple cysts in postmenopausal women.

The other seventeen lists are just as good and have a great deal of information relevant to our daily practice.  Of course no list trumps clinical judgement.  The environment we work in, the prevalence of a certain disease in our community, the quality of our tests, and our testing threshold should ultimately determine what we order and what we don’t, but having the support of other specialty societies to NOT do tests is a welcome resource. Along with sites like The NNT and EMLITofNOTE it is another tool to continue improving our daily practice.

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About Jonathan St. George

Assistant professor in emergency medicine with academic and community experience. Interests in medical education/innovation, writing, international medicine and humanitarian assistance. View all posts by Jonathan St. George

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