Unnecessary treatment or overtreatment can result from several factors, the doctors in Lyu’s survey said. Malpractice concerns can lead doctors to test for unlikely problems just to avoid missing something, or may have difficulty assessing patients’ prior medical records. There is also the incentive for the health industry to boost revenue through unnecessary treatment, which can help pay for expensive testing equipment, the doctors said.
Leaps in technology are a major factor in unnecessary treatment. Dr. Jill Wruble, a radiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, said a CT scan that provided 30 or 40 images when she began practicing in the 1990s now provides thousands of high-resolution images.
“We now see things that we would have never seen before, like a lesion that may never become a problem,” Wruble said. As a result some patients will still opt for aggressive medical treatment for things like that questionable lesion.
“Patients … often resist advice to ‘watch and wait’ and will demand surgery even when the operation itself comes with potentially dire consequences,” Wruble said. The consequences are not only higher costs but potentially years of physical discomfort and pain, along with diminished physical abilities, she said.
Susan Gennaro, dean and professor at the William F. Connell School of Nursing at Boston College, said covid provides not only opportunities to study unnecessary medical care, but also opportunities to examine areas of insufficient care. She cites a lack of mental health resources for covid patients suffering through difficult treatment and even facing death without friends or family.
“When we are thinking of new ways to treat, we all need to think about our fascination with surgery and invasive procedures and start thinking more holistically about health,” Gennaro said.
Covid’s upending of scheduled non-covid care hit hard in March and April last year, when the pandemic first began to overwhelm hospitals. Cancer surgery scheduled in April for Krista Petruzziello, for example, was postponed due to the focus on covid care.
Instead of surgery, the 49-year-old real estate agent from Lowell, Massachusetts, received hormonal treatment usually reserved for breast cancer patients with larger tumors. It was about six or seven weeks later when she had successful surgery to remove a tumor shrunken by the hormonal treatment. A recent follow-up scan found her clear of cancer, she said.
“Maybe there will be cases where the tumor disappears altogether [from hormonal treatment], allowing the surgery to be canceled,” Petruzziello said. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
Dr. Harold Burstein, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston who treated Petruzziello, said breast cancer surgery will remain a key component of treatment for the foreseeable future. But he said hormone treatment “before surgery” can shrink the tumor and “hopefully make for less extensive surgery.”
Covid, he said, forced health care providers to “think outside the box.”