Bioethics Blogs

Out of Control Physicians: Too Many Doctors Doing Too Many Things to Too Many Patients

My father is 92 years old, and I am beginning to wonder whether the best thing for his health would be to stay away from doctors. That’s because well intentioned physicians often expose their elderly patients to harmful and unnecessary services out of habit. That’s certainly the message I absorbed after reading a recent issue of JAMA Internal Medicine that published three studies documenting the worrisome frequency with which internists like me over-test and over-treat our patients. I am going to briefly describe these three studies before laying out some ideas about what’s going on here.

One study explored the use of PSA screening among men with limited life expectancy. The PSA blood test is used to screen men for prostate cancer. The test is controversial, with some groups saying there is no evidence it benefits anyone and others saying it is a crucial way to reduce prostate cancer deaths. Despite this controversy, almost everyone agrees that when people have limited life expectancy–when, because of age and other illnesses, they probably have fewer than five years to live–the PSA test does more harm than good. But some physicians nevertheless continue to order PSA tests, even in men close to the end of their lives.

The study, which analyzed data from Veteran’s Affairs medical centers, found out that patients receiving care from “attending physicians”–more senior physicians–were more likely to receive harmful PSA tests than patients receiving care from physicians still in training. Indeed, 40% of patients expected to live five or fewer years received PSA tests from experienced physicians, versus only 25% receiving care from trainees :

The second study looked at carotid artery imaging in people 65 years or older.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.