The Pricetag For Unnecessary Medical Care: $6.8 Billion Annually

Complete blood cell counts are frequently requested, but often not needed, a study found
Complete blood cell counts are frequently requested, but often not needed, a study found

The newest study, using data from federal medical surveys, estimated that 12 of those unnecessary treatments and screenings accounted for $6.8 billion in medical costs in 2009. The activity most frequently performed without need was a complete blood cell count at a routine physical exam. In 56 percent of routine physicals, doctors inappropriately ordered such tests, accounting for $32.7 million in unnecessary costs. In terms of dollars, the biggest-ticket item by far was physicians ordering brand-name statins before trying patients on a generic drug first: That accounted for a whopping $5.8 billion of the $6.8 billion total.

Minal Kale, an internist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and lead author of the study, says $6.8 billion was a conservative estimate of the cost of the inappropriate care.

She notes, for example, that the study didn't evaluate the cost of additional testing or procedures that result from an abnormal blood test reading result or imaging scan, even though in the absence of symptoms or risk factors the follow-up may be unnecessary and even cause harm. "The financial and other emotional results of that can be significant," she says.

Several factors are driving the excessive testing and medicating, researchers note, including patient expectations and physician training. Another problem is defensive medicine. The story quotes Doug Campos-Outcalt, a family physician in Phoenix and a past president of the Arizona Academy of Family Physicians who says: "Nobody ever gets sued for ordering unnecessary tests."

This program aired on November 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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