When we check into hospitals, health care workers almost immediately begin carrying out tests. Hospital staff will take our blood pressure, check our reflexes or look for swollen lymph nodes. Basic tests to collect vitals are often harmless, but other methods for diagnosing health conditions can put patients in harm’s way.
An overabundance of tests is called “defensive medicine”, a practice that seeks to avoid medical errors. Ironically, defensive medicine can cause major problems for patient safety.
Medical tests come with risks: Some medical tests are inherently risky. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a great example. MRIs use dyes that can increase the risk of kidney failure in some patients. Other imaging tests also have major risks. Repeated CT scans can increase the risk of cancer. The risk of cancer does not stop hospitals around the country from using CT scans to diagnose back pain, headaches and other common health conditions. Duodenoscopes, the medical device responsible for several superbug outbreaks at hospitals around the nation, are used in over 500,000 procedures and tests.
Excessive tests can cause ‘overdiagnosis’: Excessive tests can cause doctors to subject patients to unnecessary treatments. An article in The New Yorker written by a physician described how one patient had a microcarcinoma (cancer) in her thyroid, which later turned out to be harmless. Her previous doctor had run an excessive number of tests and concluded the thyroid needed to be removed. Removing the woman’s thyroid would have put her at risk for vocal cord paralysis and excessive bleeding.
Defensive Medicine Can Put Patients at Risk
There is evidence that excessive testing can have significant consequences for patient safety. According to the National Cancer Institute, 72 million CT scans performed in 2007 will cause 29,000 future cases of cancer. Using CT scans for minor health conditions puts the lives of patients at risk.
Hospitals have an obligation to ensure patient safety, and excessive testing is a danger that should be more closely looked at in the near future.
Shapiro Law Group is a Tampa Bay-based medical malpractice law firm with decades of experience serving the people of Florida.