Is More Medical Testing Better?

“I think this patient needs a CT scan of her chest,” the consulting
physician said to me over the phone. “Her lungs sound bad, and given her
history, we need to make sure she isn’t developing pneumonia.”

The patient, though only thirty-five, had been through a lot during her
hospitalization. She came in a week prior with some shortness of breath, an
abnormally high heart rate (tachycardia) and chest pain. But her heart
checked out just fine. An EKG was normal and her troponin, a protein
that spills into the blood with damage to heart, was undetectable. Because
of her tachycardia and chest pain we tested her for a

pulmonary embolus
, or clot in the lungs, with a CT scan. It was positive. The potentially
deadly clot blocks off blood flow coming from the right side of the heart
into the lungs causing heart strain and disrupting oxygenation of blood and
the functioning of the heart.

We admitted the patient to the

intensive care unit

where she received IV medication to thin her blood. She recovered but
continued to experience residual chest pain that would clear in the months
ahead. As we prepared to discharge the patient, the consulting physician, a
cardiologist, told us he wanted her to get another CT scan of her chest.
She had not had a scan since the initial stages of her workup. What if she
developed pneumonia in the interim? Her white blood cell count, often a
crude marker of infection, was not elevated. She did not have fevers. When
asked, she felt well enough to go home and wanted to leave. Then again,
being in the hospital made her susceptible to infection. Moreover, on her
physical exam, we heard crackles in her lungs –
this sometimes indicates an intrapulmonary pathology. The cardiologist’s
concern gave us pause and we ordered the imaging study.

~

Doctors often feel uncomfortable with areas outside of our expertise. Consequently, we call other specialists to see the patient and give us advice. Moreover,
patients sometimes ask to see a specialist in the hospital: “Can you call
the neurologist to come see me?” or “We’d like you to call a cardiologist
to see our father while he’s here.” Because consultants share a different
knowledge base than the team primarily caring for the patient they may ask
for more tests to rule out other serious pathologies that the primary team
neglected to consider.

The patient’s repeat CT scan merely demonstrated small collapsed alveoli.
These terminal branches of the lungs often collapse when we draw shallow
breaths or lie flat for a long time, a typical finding in many hospitalized
patients. Given the benign nature of this finding, we discharged the
patient. Yet she had received an extraneous dose of radiation and her
hospital bill would be hundreds of dollars more. Did she absolutely need
this? This common story raises other questions, too. Do patients do better
with more specialists seeing them? Do patients do better with more testing?

In a 2012 post for the New York Times Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope

pointed out

that “overtreatment – too many scans, too many blood tests, too many
procedures – is costing the nation’s healthcare system at least $210
billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine.” And the stories
she tells about astronomical hospital bills due to overtesting are
disturbing.

In
a 2015 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of researchers found mortality for high-risk
heart failure and cardiac arrest among patients was lower in teaching hospitals
during national cardiology meetings compared to the rest of the year – meaning that the absence of a large number of cardiologists, who were attending meetings, was correlated with lower mortality for these heart conditions in the hospital. In an editorial in the same issue, Dr.
Rita Redberg makes a disquieting suggestion: “How should we interpret these findings? One possibility is that more interventions in high-risk patients with heart failure and cardiac arrest leads to higher mortality.” Is there too much being done, especially by experienced
physicians?

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist, elaborated on these questions in a New York Times op-ed in 2015:

We – both physicians and patients – usually think more treatment means
better treatment. We often forget that every test and treatment can go
wrong, produce side effects or lead to additional interventions that
themselves can go wrong. We have learned this lesson with treatments like
antibiotics for simple medical problems from sore throats to ear
infections. Despite often repeating the mantra “First, do no harm,” doctors
have difficulty with doing less – even nothing. We find it hard to refrain
from trying another drug, blood test, imaging study or surgery.

When specialists like neurologists or cardiologists see a patient, they
approach the bedside from a unique perspective. The pathologies they know
and think about are very different from what family medicine or internal medicine doctors thinks of when they see a patient. Specialists, who often act as consultants, consider the diseases they are most worried about within their field. They’ve been asked to see the patient to
recommend workup for a disease potentially related to
their area of expertise. Their view, in other words, is necessarily myopic – if you give a carpenter a hammer, surely the carpenter will find a nail.
This does not always happen, but by nature there is a bias when a consultant
approaches a patient – and that bias is toward ordering another test,
toward doing something. Part of the art of medicine, especially as a specialist or consultant, is figuring out when the patient needs
something and when the best approach is to do nothing at all. Our patient
at the beginning of the story did not really need a repeat CT scan. To be
sure, the cardiologist didn’t recommend it simply to radiate the patient or
increase the hospital bill. But none of us wanted to miss something.

A conservative method of practice can come with experience, but as evident
from the JAMA study referenced above, that’s not necessarily the
whole story. Some of this, I think, requires thinking regularly about how well the
patient in front of the doctor is doing and how a test will change the
course of the patient’s treatment. “Will this change our management?” is a
question our attending physicians always ask us before we order a test. And it is a
question all doctors must ask themselves.

A Day in the Life, Part 2

This post continues my description in the last one of a day in the life of a medical student on rotation, where I’ve left off at lunchtime of an inpatient service day.

During the afternoon, the work of executing plans continues. If the team discharges a patient, that patient needs a follow-up appointment in clinic to make
sure there are no complications from the hospital visit. We call up the outpatient clinics and schedule patients for their next appointments. In other
cases, we need a patient’s hospital records from his or her previous visit to another hospital. Because electronic health records are usually closed within
a hospital system, we have to request that other hospitals fax us medical information. This is a rate-limiting factor in getting complete access to lab and
imaging results, which are integral to patient care. For instance, if a patient comes in with a severe headache and another hospital performed a CT scan of
his head, access to that scan may be essential to ruling out a diagnosis of something serious, like a brain tumor or infection. And if we can’t get
the images from the other hospital we may have to do one at our hospital. This is, undoubtedly, one of the major weaknesses of a non-universal electronic
health record system.

The medical team may also discharge a patient to a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or an old-age home, in which case the facility needs documentation
regarding what further care is needed. Some patients do not have anywhere to go after the hospital; some abuse alcohol or drugs and must go to a rehab
program; some can’t pay for the oxygen they need at home or medications for HIV; others started taking a blood thinner called warfarin and need to schedule appointments at a lab to get blood levels of this medication checked. To
deal with all this, the residents, attending, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers all coordinate with each other and with governmental and private
organizations to get the patient where he or she needs to be and what he or she needs in order to stay healthy. The healthcare team takes on this Sisyphean
task with varied success. Given the number of factors involved in this transition, one of which is whether the patient takes his or her medication, the
result is not always ideal. I’ll write more about this later.

Additionally, the residents and attending physician sometimes admit new patients to the hospital during the afternoons from smaller hospitals in the
community. Community hospitals are not always capable of caring for patients with a rare tumor or disease, while academic medical centers, which are
attached to medical schools, have more physicians who specialize in and research rare disorders. For example, a patient having seizures that cannot be controlled with first or second-line medications is sent
over to an academic institution where neurologists experienced in handling refractory seizures can care for the patient.

The medical team may also admit a patient from the Emergency Department (ED) for a full diagnostic workup and treatment of an acute or chronic disease. For instance, a patient
with worsening Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) needs temporary
high-potency medications for a few days before going back home. Some patients with an exacerbation of this disease need constant monitoring so they don’t
experience respiratory failure. Clearly, then, the afternoons can get busy, especially if the residents have to finish their notes.

At 6 p.m., the night intern arrives and receives checkout from the day team: The day intern runs through a list with the night intern, describing the new
admissions to the hospital service, the events over the course of the day for each patient, and which lab and imaging results the night intern needs to
follow.

Image via Shutterstock

Outpatient and the ED

The time that we spend in a doctor’s office — on our outpatient weeks — is a lot less hectic. Whether we are in family medicine, pediatrics, or obstetrics/gynecology clinic, we arrive at 8 a.m., which
gives us time to exercise in the morning or stay up a bit later at night. The residents arrive at the same time. We look at the clinic schedule for the
day on the electronic health system and begin to read old notes in the electronic health record to get ourselves up to date with the latest medical information
on each patient.

When patients arrive, the medical student goes in first to interview a patient and do a focused physical exam, after which the student reports his findings and his plan to the resident, just like we do in the ED. The attending and the
resident then see the patient and come up with a tailored plan for how to proceed. We have an hour for lunch at noon and then come back from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (This is similar to our ED
shifts, since they are both eight hours — except of course our ED shifts are sometimes late at night or overnight, and there are no scheduled meal breaks during an ED shift.)

After our days finish, we are expected to do research on a disease process we saw during the day. If a patient comes in with pneumonia, we read up on the
common causes of pneumonia and the various treatments available for it. We also study for our shelf exam, which is a national multiple-choice test that we must pass
after each third-year rotation. At the end of pediatrics, for instance, the shelf exam tests us on pediatric illnesses and treatments. These tests are difficult
and so we frequently study from various third-party review resources —

Kaplan
, UWorld, PreTest, Case Files, and others. A whole industry is built around these shelf exams, which
eventually culminate in a nine-hour, eight-section national licensing exam called STEP 2 CK. This comprehensive exam
tests basic clinical knowledge at the end of third year. So on a day-to-day basis we not only worry about learning how to deal with patients and their
illnesses but we also study for our exams, which is a requirement that ensures we know the important information involved in our daily practice.

A Day in the Life, Part 1

My editors here at The New Atlantis suggested I write about what a day is like for me and other members of the medical team. What exactly (aside from
rounding) do we do all day? When do we have to be in? When do we leave? What goes on when we’re not rounding?

We can divide the third year of medical school into three distinct categories of rotations. There are inpatient weeks (hospital work), outpatient weeks
(doctor’s office work), and the Emergency Department, or ED. The roles differ as do the schedules. I have already described a bit about how the ED works here. The hospital is for patients who need urgent medical attention or
medical procedures. If a patient is having a heart attack, for instance, a cardiologist in the hospital will make sure the patient does not suffer
complications from the disease process. Outpatient work, by contrast, involves less urgent medical problems, like adjusting blood pressure medications or prescribing antibiotics for an ear infection. Let me take you through a day on inpatient and outpatient medicine.

Inpatient

On an inpatient service the interns arrive at approximately 6 a.m. or, if on a surgical service, at 5:30 a.m., and print out a patient list from the electronic
health record. This list of patients contains the patient names, chief complaints, possible diagnoses, ages, and other basic information of the patients we
need to see. It contains a summary of tests and test results as well. It may seem a bit silly that physicians need a reminder about which patients they are
taking care of; however, the hospital experiences quick turnover. A patient may be present for only a couple of days before leaving. Then, a new patient
with a new history and a new problem takes his or her place. Additionally, when there are sixteen patients on the list it is difficult to keep up with
every story.

Medical students arrive shortly after the interns (the residents are a bit like our supervisors, letting us know when we can leave and when we ought to
come in). Given how early in the day we usually have to be in, there is little time in the morning to do anything but eat a quick breakfast while
bleary-eyed before driving to the hospital in the dark. If we’re there early enough, we receive checkout from the night intern. The night intern goes
through each patient on the list and discusses the latest news on each patient. Did the patient vomit? Did he or she have trouble breathing? What
interventions, tests, or treatments were done? Additionally, if the night intern admitted new patients overnight, what is the story behind the hospital
admission? These questions are vital to the care of each patient. If the day resident does not know, for example, that a patient was having trouble
breathing or received an imaging study then the resident does not know to look at the results of that study, potentially missing a life-threatening problem
like a collapsed lung or a heart attack. In an ideal world, the transition between resident shifts is so seamless that it is as if the day resident took
care of or admitted patients during the night.

Subsequently, the interns assign medical students to “follow” one, two, or three patients (depending on how far along we are during our third year). Following a patient
means knowing the vital signs daily and keeping up with the results of x-rays, CT scans, and lab tests. It also means we come up with a plan for that
patient’s care and propose it to the attending and residents. In truth, the residents and attendings already know what they are going to do for the patient
and our proposals are merely an exercise for our own edification.

After these assignments, we go through the chart on the electronic health record and read about the patient’s history. We read the night intern’s note on
the patient and we look at the labs (tests) that the intern ordered. These notes give us a sense of what the residents or attendings thought the patient had and
needed. For example, if the patient came into the ED with a fever and a cough, the notes will usually mention a workup and treatment for a possible pneumonia, or lung infection (which includes a chest x-ray, sputum culture, and
empiric antibiotics). More importantly, students and residents look at the vital signs of the
patients we follow. These indicate if the patient needs immediate treatment. Is the blood pressure too low with a fast heart rate and a high body
temperature? This indicates a possible blood infection and we take blood cultures and administer antibiotics.

Despite the fact that the sun has not yet peeked through the hospital windows, we subsequently visit patients in their rooms to do a physical exam. We look
at new rashes that patients have, listen to hearts and lungs with stethoscopes and perform neurological exams. We target our exam at the patient’s
presenting illness. For a patient with pneumonia, we listen closely to the patient’s lungs for abnormal breathing sounds due to the infection. All this, of
course, entails waking the patient up. And since residents, appropriately, will come in after us to make sure that we have done the physical exam correctly
and that the patient is in no distress, we unfortunately wake the patient up at least twice during the early morning hours. This is separate from the
instances where the nurses wake the patient up to draw blood for morning labs. Such is one difficulty of being a patient at a teaching hospital, something
I will discuss in future posts.

Image via Shutterstock

Once we’re finished seeing the patients, we have a little bit of time left before rounds start at 8 a.m. We look up information about the illnesses our patients have. We also write down the information we will need to present the patient to the attending physician on rounds. I’ve written a bit about
patient presentations in this post, but in sum,
our presentations report the relevant medical information and treatment plan in an organized and concise matter.

At 8 a.m., the attending arrives and we round on patients. Aside from the few patient presentation(s) we do for the attending we remain silent and watch and
learn as I’ve described previously. Once we finish rounding
we go over the patient list in the physician work room. We make sure that we all agree on the plans for each patient for the rest of the day. Some patients
need to leave the hospital. Some need more IV fluids or medications. And some need an imaging study or a blood test.

After we’ve confirmed all of this, the residents write “notes” about each patient for the electronic health record. A note is similar in format to a patient
presentation. It contains a brief history of the patient’s chief complaint and illness as well as the blood test results, imaging test results, diagnosis,
past medical history, and past surgical history, as well as the treatment plan for the patient. These notes, though incredibly time-consuming, serve a
valuable purpose. First, legally, the note can help protect a physician from future lawsuits. The note documents a physician’s train of thought and
actions. It justifies the tests and treatments which patients receive in the hospital. Second, it is used for billing purposes by documenting what was done
for the patient. And third, when the patient goes for a follow-up appointment with another physician in clinic, the note acts as a standardized form of
communication to update the clinician on what was done in the hospital.

At lunchtime, medical students usually receive a lecture from a physician in the rotation. In pediatrics, for instance, we may listen to a lecture on
pediatric respiratory complaints from a pediatrician. Meanwhile, the residents remain in the workroom or, if they’ve finished with their notes, they can
grab a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria. Sometimes, though, the residents are swamped. They carry around pagers or phones, and nurses and other physicians
page or call throughout the day with questions about specific patients. A patient may get a headache or feel nauseous and the nurse may page the resident
to ask if it’s okay to give pain medication or antiemetics (medication for nausea or vomiting). Given
that there are a limited number of residents, if multiple patients fall extremely ill and need medications, it can be difficult for the residents to
respond to other more minor complaints. A cardiac arrest on the floor, for example, may prevent the resident from ordering pain medication for a patient
with a headache.

More on a day in the life, in a bit…