Based on various estimates, the national health bill for unnecessary care – or medical waste – is between nearly $500 billion and almost $1 trillion. According to the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, 30 percent of Medicare spending goes to care that is unnecessary or harmful. And in April, a study published in Health Affairs estimated the U.S. spends $4 billion on breast cancer overtreatment alone, for care associated with false-positive mammograms and breast cancer overdiagnoses.
Economics aside, clinicians and researchers who have studied issues of medical excess say the most concerning cost of all involves patient well-being. More tests mean more treatment and, experts say, while care may be a boon for some who need it – and save lives – following the doctor’s orders can also hurt patients, putting them at risk for everything from drug side effects to death on the operating table.
“If the diagnosis is incorrect, any treatment that goes along with it is also incorrect,” says Dr. Stephen Martin, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts, who has studied overdiagnosis and overtreatment. To prevent unnecessary care, Martin recommends patients start by asking about the reason for any recommended tests, including those ordered in multiples.