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Are we allowing technology to hamper healing?

13866052723_2020820f89_zYou’ve heard it before

I’m at that age doctor when I should have a full body scan. Like it’s being offered here.

or at the very least

Can I have a scan doctor?

When offered radiological tests immediately the public is led to believe that such investigations are necessary. In Australia between 1996 and 2010, total CT scan numbers have increased almost 3 fold. (Medicare Australia, Group Statistics Reports 2010, Report No. 2. Available from here). The number of CT scans is reportedly growing at about 9% each year in Australia. In the USA there are estimated to be 62 million scans per year as compared with about 3 million in 1980 with growing concern about the wisdom of exposing people to increasing levels of radiation.

At the same time the value of most tests carried out is also in doubt. In a study of an academic medical department it was concluded that:

…almost 68% of the laboratory tests commonly ordered…. could have been avoided, without any adverse effect on patient management; this figure corresponds to 2.01 unnecessary tests ordered/patient during each day of their hospitalisation. Miyakis et al

In the context of hospital medicine inappropriate test ordering adds to the cost of healthcare. In primary care there is the additional concern that tests fail to achieve any useful outcome. The patient may experience considerable dissatisfaction with the failure of diagnostic tests to explain their pain and may feel they they are being labelled a malingerer.

Therefore one might pause to reflect before requesting yet another investigation. Physical examination, which arguably obviates the need for many tests has an enormous value to the patient even in the context of advanced cancer.

Most patients (83%) indicated that the overall experience of being examined was highly positive (median score, 4; interquartile range [IQR], 2-5; P ≤ .0001). Patients valued both the pragmatic aspects (median score, 5; IQR, 4-5) and symbolic aspects (median score, 4; IQR, 4-5) of the physical examination. Increasing age was independently associated with a more positive perception of the physical examination (odds ratio, 1.07 per year; 95% confidence interval, 1.02-1.12 per year; P = .01). Kadakia et al

According to Paul Little and colleagues reporting in the BMJ perceived pressure from patients is a strong independent predictor of whether doctors examine, prescribe, refer, or investigate in primary care. It seems, at least in part that we may be responding to such pressures to order necessary tests. On the other hand our perception of the value of examination may be blunted.  As Professor Little wrote:

The doctors thought, however, there was no or only slight medical need among a significant proportion of those examined (89/580, 15%), given a prescription (74/394, 19%), or referred (27/125, 22%) and among almost half of those investigated (99/216, 46%).

One could argue with the doctors’ impressions of the ‘need’ for medical examination. To some extent it is necessary in every case. We may be losing the sight of the therapeutic effect of the examination as part of effective communication in primary care. There is a need to revitalise our ability to heal. At a time of increasing costs in healthcare examining patients is a relatively low cost intervention with significant potential to improve outcomes.

Picture by COM SALUD

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