Study Finds Doctors Order Too Many Imaging Tests

By Pat Anson, Editor

Doctors are still ordering too many imaging tests for low back pain and headache, according to an early study of the effectiveness of the Choosing Wisely campaign, a national effort to reduce the number of unnecessary medical treatments and procedures.

In an analysis of seven clinical services with questionable benefit to patients, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that the use of five procedures either increased or stayed the same; while there were only slight declines in the use of two others.

CT and MRI imaging tests for simple headache decreased from 14.9 percent to 13.4 percent, while cardiac imaging for patients with no history of heart problems dropped from 10.8 percent to 9.7 percent.

The prescribing of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increased from 14.4% to 16.2% for hypertension, heart failure or chronic kidney disease. Testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) in young women also rose, from 4.8% to 6%.

Imaging tests for low back pain (53.7%), pre-operative chest x-rays (91.5%), and antibiotics for sinusitis (91.5%) remained stubbornly high.

The study was based on a database of insurance claims from 2013 for about 25 million members of Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans.

“It remains an open question whether clinicians or consumers at large are aware of specific Choosing Wisely recommendations or have changed their attitude toward unnecessary tests and procedures,” wrote Ralph Gonzalez, MD, in a commentary published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“In a fee-for services system, most delivery systems continue to get paid for tests and drugs. Payers are able to pass on these costs to employers and patients, creating a vicious cycle.”

The Choosing Wisely campaign was launched in 2012 by the ABIM Foundation (American Board of Internal Medicine) with the goal of reducing waste and unnecessary medical tests and treatments. It has grown to include a list of hundreds of frequently used procedures that have little value or may, in fact, be risky.

“Most people with lower-back pain feel better in about a month whether they get an imaging test or not. In fact, those tests can lead to additional procedures that complicate recovery,” Choosing Wisely states on its website.

“A study that looked at 1,800 people with back pain found that those who had imaging tests soon after reporting the problem fared no better and sometimes did worse than people who took simple steps like applying heat, staying active, and taking an OTC pain reliever. Another study found that back-pain sufferers who had an MRI in the first month were eight times more likely to have surgery, and had a five-fold increase in medical expenses.”

The Choosing Wisely campaign also discourages doctors from performing epidural steroid injections if a patient doesn’t show signs of improvement after one injection. A number of prominent pain doctors have told Pain News Network the shots are overused, with some patients getting dozens of injections.