Story One: When I was a child (and we’re talking a lo-o-o-ng time ago – when doctors made house calls)… if I got an earache, I would suffer. REALLY suffer. Mom would drip some warm oil into my ear, and then stuff some cotton in behind it. She’d give me an orange flavored baby aspirin or two. And I would just lie in bed, or on the couch, miserable. MISERABLE. Seems like I would sleep a lot. Two days later, my earache would be gone, and because I was a kid, and resilient, I would be back on my feet.
Story Two: When I was a kid, I fell off my bike as I flew around a corner near my house. My bike flew off in one direction and I flew in the other, and landed smack on my elbow. OH THE PAIN! I pulled the cinders out of my arm, and cried all the way home as I dragged my bike with me. That evening my dad walked me across the street to see a doctor who lived in our neighborhood. He felt along my arm, moved it around a little, declared that I had sprained it, then put my arm in a sling where I was expected to keep it for the next few weeks.
Perhaps it’s miraculous that I survived childhood! But I don’t think so. I think any of us over a “certain age” had very similar experiences as a child. We all had sore throats and earaches, we all sprained and broke bones – and we didn’t have the miracles of modern medical care to help.
Fast forward to today. Today when we go to the doctor, no matter what the complaint, we are met with a barrage of tests, procedures and treatments. If I had a sore throat and an earache in 2012, I would likely be given a strep test (chi-ching!) and prescribed an antibiotic (chi-ching!) If I fell off my bike in 2012, I would be given at least an X-ray (chi-ching!), but more likely a CT scan. I’d be prescribed an antibiotic (chi-ching!) and maybe even a pain killer (chi-ching!) I’d need follow up testing to see how well everything was healing (chi-ching!)…
Bottom line – healthcare is so much more expensive today because we do things that we don’t necessarily need to do. We are herded into services that we don’t necessarily need. And (shame on us) we ASK for things we don’t necessarily need and probably shouldn’t get.
Don’t need? Shouldn’t get?
Antibiotics, the miracle drug of the 80s and 90s, were so overprescribed that today the bugs they were intended to kill have evolved into superbugs. People die from acquiring infections that didn’t become problematic until the overuse of antibiotics. Yet – mom takes her child to the doctor with an earache and insists an antibiotic be prescribed for her child. Two days later, the child is no longer in pain. (But is that any improvement over the two days it took me to get past my earache 50+ years ago?)
The existence of CT scanners, MRI scanners and PET scanners, and the need to pay for them, compel doctors to order those tests, even in cases when they may not be necessary. Of course there are times when they are very necessary – but not always, and not as often as they are used now. When it comes to so much extra scanning, it can create big problems for our health (too much radiation exposure from x-rays or CTs) AND our wallets – imaging is expensive, even when we have insurance.
So how can we know the difference? How can we be a bit more savvy when it comes to test and treatments, whether or not they are suggested by our doctors?
Last month, a consortium of nine different medical specialties – the very doctors who make money when we have tests and treatments – came out with their lists of tests, treatments and procedures we patients don’t need. They listed them all on a website, called Choosing Wisely.
If these doctors don’t think we should take these tests, then why would we have them?
What we know is that this elite group has made these recommendations. What we don’t know is that those recommendations will filter down to the doctors who order these tests, treatments and procedures – because that’s how they make their money, and (they think) that’s how they can defend against lawsuits. (We can only imagine how unhappy that orthopedist who makes his living running CT scans is with his own peers that tell patients not to get so many CT scans.)
So, knowing that our doctors may not be aware of the lists, or may have chosen to ignore the lists, it’s up to us patients to ask questions. “Doctor, If I take this antibiotic, how soon will I feel better? How soon will I feel better if I don’t take it?” — or — “Doctor, I know an X-ray is much less expensive than a CT scan. What will a CT scan tell you that an x-ray won’t? Can I have just the x-ray?”
So yes, fellow empowered patients, it’s time for us to begin making smarter choices, both for our wallets and for our health. Make yourself generally aware of the new recommendations of tests, procedures and treatments you just don’t need. Understand that leaders in healthcare who understand about reining in costs, even if they are the ones who lose income, are calling out to their peers to make changes in their recommendations….
Unfortunately, anything in medical care takes a LOT time to implement. But this is something we patients can do – and do with no detriment to our health OR our wallets.
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