Healthcare News & Insights

Overtreatment could be harming your patients: Here’s how to avoid it

Unnecessary tests and treatments that offer little benefit are common in health care, and they’re often harming patients. Not only does overtreatment cost hospitals money and time, it can also cause patients needless pain and suffering. 

Overtreatment is more widespread than you might think.

Doctors estimate that 21% of medical care is unnecessary, according to a study published in PLOS ONE last month.

And a 2009 report from the National Academy of Medicine found that overtreatment costs the U.S. healthcare system at least $210 billion a year.

Scott Ramsey, the director of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, called overtreatment “the worst kind of financial toxicity, because you’re incurring costs for something with no benefit.”

Overtreatment & patients

But it’s not just the additional costs worrying providers. Many of these unnecessary medical services can harm patients with painful treatments that are unlikely to actually extend their life expectancy. The Los Angeles Times reported that overly aggressive care causes mistakes and injuries resulting in 30,000 deaths a year.

Plus, the burden on patients who might not have easy access to a hospital or are unable to pay for the treatments they receive can cause them to make drastic choices that lead to even more unnecessary care.

For example, breast cancer patients in rural areas are more likely to undergo a mastectomy than patients in urban areas, partially because a mastectomy requires less follow-up radiation – which means they don’t need to travel to a far-away hospital as often.

4 reasons why

According to Kaiser Health News, there are multiple reasons why providers might perform unnecessary services on patients, including:

  • habit
  • fear of doing too little and being sued
  • patient demands, and
  • financial incentives.

Most doctors aren’t overtreating patients on purpose. Providers are used to doing things their way, and they don’t want to stop making the same treatment decisions they’ve made for their entire careers. Pressure from patients themselves also plays a role in overtreatment. And the potential reimbursement for longer or more intense treatments, like increased radiation sessions, can drive some providers to go overboard.

But there are efforts to make changes in the industry.

The American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation launched the Choosing Wisely campaign, which lists treatments to avoid, if possible, and advocates for increased awareness surrounding unnecessary treatment.

Next steps

So how can your hospital reduce overtreatment?

First, educate your providers and patients about overuse. This cuts down on unnecessary lab tests and treatments. Avoid giving into patients’ demands for certain treatments or drugs (such as antibiotics) if they’re not necessary for their conditions.

And try setting up a system to let doctors know when they’re providing nonessential care. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles sends electronic alerts to doctors when they order tests or drugs that run contrary to certain Choosing Wisely guidelines. The hospital said in the first year of the alert system, it saved $6 million.

Because it keeps your patients safer and lowers your costs, cutting down on overtreatment should be top priority for your hospital.

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