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"I Think I See a Few Dollars on That X-Ray: We'll have to Operate" by David Himmelstein, MD

This article is more than 11 years old.

As a primary care doctor, I live with one foot in the horse and buggy era and one in the silicon age. I spend most of my time talking to patients and wielding a stethoscope, and I also use the latest high tech gadgets. But the gadgetry is getting out of hand; its overuse threatens patients and is blowing the lid off health care costs. Here’s one example. Last week, when a patient came in complaining of a cough that had lingered longer than usual, I sent him down for a chest x-ray. The x-ray was absolutely normal to my eye, a reading confirmed by the radiologist. But he added one key phrase after the word “normal.” “Consider obtaining a CT scan.”

Now the radiation from a single chest CT is equivalent to about 500 chest x-rays, which carries a real risk of causing cancer down the road. And there’s virtually no evidence that a CT would help a patient like mine. But it would certainly benefit the radiologist.

He and his colleagues are paid as piece workers – they get an additional fee for each scan they interpret. Radiologists have gotten rich (they average over $400,000 annually) by buying CT scanners, MRI machines and other high tech gadgets, and prodding other doctors to order these expensive tests. And each test breeds more tests. A tiny abnormality on one CT (and most of us have something that looks a little funny if you look hard enough), means a radiologist’s report recommending “follow-up CT in 6 months to assess progression.”

It’s not just the radiologists who work this scam. Perhaps half of the stents that cardiologists put in do patients no good at all; oncologists inflict lucrative chemotherapy on many patients who gain nothing but suffering from these potions; and orthopedists often needlessly scope knees and operate on backs. And hospitals are willing partners to these rip-offs. The useless and harmful procedures keep ORs humming and beds full of high-paying patients. It’s gadgets and procedures that bring in the big bucks.

HMOs and insurers have tried to crack down on unnecessary care. But doctors and hospitals can easily outsmart them. We manufacture the data they use to monitor us. I can always make a plausible case for an expensive test, and just try interrupting a cardiologist in the middle of a diagnostic catheterization to debate whether a stent is really needed. So insurers are turning to high deductible insurance policies in an effort to get patients to do the dirty work of limiting care. Unfortunately, the high deductibles mostly keep people away from inexpensive primary and preventive care, and do little to discourage high cost, useless procedures. Even one day in the hospital pushes most patients over their deductible, leaving them no further reason to economize.

As Milton Roemer (a distinguished health policy professor) once observed: “an empty hospital bed will soon be filled.” He probably would have added “an idle CT scanner will soon be in use,” but CTs hadn’t been invented yet. Once you build it, they will come – encouraged by their doctors – and costs will rise.

So what are the implications of all this for health reform? Not good. Almost everywhere you look, hospitals are building, and the new buildings won’t house psychiatrists or family doctors who devote their days to the routine, inexpensive care that has the biggest impact on health and wellness. They’re for big ticket items like surgery and imaging suites. Those buildings will soon be filled, driving health costs further skyward. And legislation encouraging prevention, or electronic medical records, or even banning drug company gifts won’t make a whit of difference (even though I favor all of these things).

What can help? Real health planning, which limits the supply of expensive gadgets and ORs. Paying doctors on salaries rather than as piece workers. And a ban on for-profit medicine. Unfortunately, all of these require far more radical reform than Chapter 58. They’re only feasible under a real national health insurance program.

David Himmelstein
Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
and Co-Founder of Physicians for a National Health Program

This program aired on June 13, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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