Most Doctors Don’t Follow Guidelines for Patients

For all their talk about evidence-based medicine, a lot of doctors don’t follow the clinical guidelines set by leading medical groups.

Consider, for example, the case of cataract surgery. It’s a fairly straightforward medical procedure: Doctors replace an eye’s cloudy lens with a clear, prosthetic one. More than a million people each year in the U.S. have the surgery — most of them older than 65.

“The procedure itself is relatively painless and quick,” says Dr. Catherine Chen, an anesthesiologist and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. She calls it the “prototypical low-risk surgery.”

And since at least 2002, Chen says, clinical guidelines have stipulated that no preoperative testing is needed before cataract surgery. A large study showed that procedures like chest X-rays, blood tests and EKGs — tests sometimes recommended when older people undergo more complicated surgeries — do not benefit someone who is simply having a cataract removed.

But Chen noticed that a lot of patients are having these preoperative tests done anyway. How many? Digging into the numbers, she discovered that half the ophthalmologists who performed cataract surgery on Medicare patients in 2011 ordered unnecessary tests. That’s the same percentage as in 1995.

“In about 20 years, nothing has really changed in terms of physician performance,” Chen says. She recently published those findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Steven Brown, a professor of family medicine at the University of Arizona, has studied doctors’ reasons for ordering unnecessary tests before a scheduled surgery. A lot of it has to do with perceived safety, he says.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary