By Kim Bellard, May 27, 2016
If you've ever had a hard time trying to decide what's best for your health, perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that physicians often aren't so sure either.
Or perhaps not.
A new study in Annals of Surgery, and nicely reported on by Julia Belluz inVox, focused on surgical uncertainty. The researchers sent four detailed clinical vignettes to a national sample of surgeons, seeking to get their assessment on the risks/benefits of operative and non-operative treatment, as well as their recommendations. You'd like to think there was good consensus on what to do, but that was not the case.
In one of the vignettes, involving a 68 year-old patient with a small bowel blockage, there was fairly universal agreement -- 85% -- that surgery was the best option. In the other three vignettes, though, the surgeons were fairly evenly split about whether to operate or not, even on something as common as appendicitis.
So, there may be a "right" answer but you might as well flip a coin in terms of getting it, or there may just not be a right answer. Both options are troubling.
The authors believe that surgeons are less likely to want to operate as their perception of surgical risk increased and the benefits of non-operative treatment increased, and more likely to want to operate as their perception of surgical benefit increased and non-operative risk increased. The problem is that surgeons vary dramatically -- literally from 0 to 100% -- on their perceptions of those risks.
Most surgeons based their estimates of risks/benefits on their experience, their training, and -- if you're lucky -- on whatever literature might be available, but it is doubtful that we can usually expect an objective, quantifiable assessment.
The American College of Surgeons has developed a "surgical risk calculator" to help surgeons better gauge these risks, using data from a large dataset of patients. However, an earlier related study from the same team of researchers found that it doesn't make much difference. The calculator did narrow the variability of surgeons' assessment of risk, but: "Interestingly, it did not alter their reported likelihood of recommending an operation."
It is not just surgeons who aren't always sure of the right course of action, of course. A study in the American Journal of Managed Care found that 62% of physicians reported that they found the "uncertainty involved in providing patient care disconcerting." The discomfort with uncertainty did not vary appreciably between type of specialty.
Then there is the example of PSA tests. In 2008 the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended routine PSA tests not be given to men over 75, and in 2012 broadened that recommendation to all ages. Yet data suggest that the group least likely to need the tests -- men over 75 -- had the smallest declines in rates of testing. Almost 40% of this age group are still getting the test, which is not far from the previous rates.
As one researcher told The New York Times, "That’s just insanity...bad medicine, poor use of health care resources and poor decision-making.”
There's all too much of that in our health care system.