Doctors Perform Thousands of Unnecessary Surgeries: Are You Getting One of Them?
July 10, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
If your physician tells you that you need surgery, unless it is an emergency, I would strongly recommend to get a second opinion first.
In many cases, you may find that you don’t need surgery after all, saving not only a considerable amount of money but also avoiding the potentially deadly risks that any surgery carries.
In fact, according to a new USA Today review of government records and medical databases, tens of thousands of patients undergo unnecessary surgery each and every year!1 And according to some experts, that number may actually be in the millions. According to USA Today:
“'It's a very serious issue, (and) there really hasn't been a movement to address it,' says Lucian Leape, a former surgeon and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Leape, a renowned patient safety expert...
He began studying unnecessary surgery after a 1974 congressional report estimated that there were 2.4 million cases a year, killing nearly 12,000 patients. Leape's take today? "Things haven't changed very much.'”
Many Doctors ‘Lack the Competence’ to Know When a Surgery Isn’t Necessary
There are multiple reasons why unnecessary surgeries take place. In some cases they’re the result of criminal acts, in which surgeons intentionally prey on patients, performing surgeries even though they know they are not medically justified.
USA Today cited the case of Michael Rosin, a dermatologist who was sentenced to 22 years in prison and fines of more than $7 million for intentionally misdiagnosing his patients with skin cancer so he could perform surgeries to remove benign lesions.
Far more often, however, are the physicians who perform unnecessary surgeries out of incompetence or a lack of training in less-invasive alternatives. Many health care providers may believe that surgery is the only answer, even when the success rates are minimal and better non-surgical treatment options exist.
Then there are those providers who perform the surgery simply because the profit will increase their income, and they can justify them as medically ‘necessary.’ USA Today reported:2
“'I think there are a very small percent of doctors who are crooked, maybe 1 or 2%,' says John Santa, a physician and former health system administrator who became director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center in 2008.
'I think there's a higher percentage who are not well trained or not competent' to determine when surgery is necessary, Santa says. 'Then you have a big group who are more businessmen than medical professionals — doctors who look at those gray cases and say, 'Well, I have enough here to justify surgery, so I'm going to do it.''”
Personally, I think USA Today is being very kind in their low-ball estimate of 1-2%. Those numbers seem quite low and from my experience I suspect it is significantly higher.
Six Common Surgeries That Are Often Unnecessary
It’s worth getting a second opinion before you have virtually any non-emergency surgery. However, if you’re scheduled for one of the following procedures, it becomes even more imperative to seek another expert’s opinion, as these surgeries carry a high risk of being done without medical necessity.3
Yes I realize there is a cost and significant hassle factor, but I strongly encourage to do your due diligence. The extra time and resources you invest in confirming the necessity of the surgery could have a major impact on your ability to enjoy the rest of your life.
1. Cardiac Angioplasty, Stents
This invasive procedure involves inflating a thin balloon in a narrowed artery to crush plaque deposits; a stent (a wire mesh tube) is often then left behind to keep the vessel open. When used during a heart attack, an angioplasty can quickly open a blocked artery to lessen the damage to your heart, and when used in this way can be lifesaving.
However, oftentimes heart disease patients receive angioplasties even though they have not had a heart attack -- a decision that goes against the latest medical guidelines. One 2011 study found that 12 percent of all angioplasty procedures (in cases that did not involve an acute heart attack) were not medically necessary.4 Separate research also revealed that angioplasty offers no benefit compared to less invasive treatment of heart disease.5
2. Cardiac Pacemakers
Pacemakers are used to correct heartbeat irregularities, but research shows that more than 22 percent of these implants may be unnecessary.6
3. Spinal Fusion Back Surgery
If you have low back pain and see different specialists you will get different tests: rheumatologists will order blood tests, neurologists will order nerve impulse tests, and surgeons will order MRIs and CT scans. But no matter what tests you get, you'll probably end up with a spinal fusion because it's one of the "more lucrative procedures in medicine," author Shannon Brownlee says – even though the best success rate for spinal fusions is only 25 percent!
According to one review, more than 17 percent of patients told they needed spinal surgery actually showed no abnormal neurological or radiographic findings that would require surgery.7
The surgical removal of the uterus may be recommended inappropriately in 70 percent of cases, often because of a lack of adequate diagnostic evaluation and failure to try alternative treatments before the surgery.8 Some surgeons also remove healthy ovaries during hysterectomy as a ‘precaution,’ sometimes without the patient providing their consent or being informed as to the severe adverse effects the ovariectomy may produce on their remaining quality of life.
5. Knee and Hip Replacement, and Arthroscopic Knee Surgery
Patients who were informed about joint replacements and alternative treatments had 26 percent fewer hip replacements and 38 percent fewer knee replacements than those who did not.9 Arthroscopic knee surgery for osteoarthritis is also one of the most unnecessary surgeries performed today, as it works no better than a placebo surgery.
Proof of this is a double-blind placebo-controlled multi-center (including Harvard’s Mass General Hospital) study published in one of the most well-respected medical journals on the planet, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) over 10 years ago.10
Recent research has also shown arthroscopic knee surgery works no better than placebo surgery, and when comparing treatments for knee pain, physical therapy was found to be just as effective as surgery, but at significantly reduced cost and risk.11 And yet another study showed exercise is just as effective as surgery for people with chronic pain in the front part of their knee, known as chronic patellofemoral syndrome (PFPS), which is also frequently treated unnecessarily with arthroscopic surgery.12
6. Cesarean Section
Cesarean delivery is the most commonly performed surgical procedure in the US and rates are increasing. But research shows rates vary 10-fold among hospitals, even among low-risk pregnancies,13 suggesting that practice patterns, not necessity, are driving these high surgery rates.
According to the World Health Organization, no country is justified in having a cesarean rate greater than 10 percent to 15 percent. The US rate, at nearly 32 percent, is the highest rate ever reported in the US and is higher than in most other developed countries.
Diagnostic Errors Permanently Injure or Kill Up to 160,000 Americans a Year
Unnecessary surgeries are only one problem facing the conventional medical system. Medical errors are also alarmingly common, and diagnosis errors, in particular, appear to be occurring at very high rates. Researchers recently wrote in BMJ Quality & Safety:14
“Among malpractice claims, diagnostic errors appear to be the most common, most costly and most dangerous of medical mistakes. We found roughly equal numbers of lethal and non-lethal errors in our analysis, suggesting that the public health burden of diagnostic errors could be twice that previously estimated.”
The study involved more than 350,000 malpractice claims, of which nearly 29 percent involved a missed, wrong or delayed diagnosis. Such errors may account for the permanent injury or death of up to 160,000 patients each year, the study found, with researchers noting that “it is probably a lot higher than that.”15 Case in point, when all medical errors, not just diagnosis errors, are taken into account, the rate of medical harm occurring in the US is estimated to be over 40,000 harmful and/or lethal errors each and EVERY day.16
Hospitals Profit Off of Surgical Errors and Medical Mishaps
Part of the problem is that hospitals and providers have little incentive to change, as the more surgeries performed, the more money they make. And if complications are involved, so much the better from a financial perspective.
One revealing JAMA study found that major surgical complications actually earn hospitals more money on privately insured or Medicare-covered patients.17 This isn’t exactly shocking, of course, since the more complications suffered, the longer the hospital stay and the more associated medications, tests and procedures that will be ordered. Hospitals are a business, after all, and the more “services” used by any one patient, the more money they make.
Where money is concerned, a hospital therefore has no incentive to reduce surgical errors and other medical mishaps, which may actually be a key moneymaker for them. And, as the Health Business Blog astutely reported,18 unlike most businesses, which suffer financially when mistakes occur, hospitals get to charge you even more money to treat you for avoidable complications or mistakes they make. Decreasing surgical complications may therefore have adverse financial consequences for many hospitals, the researchers concluded, and the same goes for reducing unnecessary surgery rates, as well.
It’s Your Body: Take Control of Your Health
My primary suggestion is to avoid hospitals and surgeries unless it's an absolute emergency and you need life-saving medical attention. If you're going to have an elective medical procedure, always get a second opinion—and possibly a third and fourth.
The other KEY is to be proactive and start pursuing a healthy lifestyle today so you don't become a victim of an unnecessary medical procedure. I have compiled my best tips in a customized 100-page nutrition plan to help you take control of your health. It is customized to three different levels and you can start at any level, but be sure and read from the beginning, as reviewing the basics is the best way to reinforce healthy patterns.
As much as possible, be proactive in using a healthy lifestyle to support and protect your health and, if illness does occur, use natural methods that will allow your body to heal itself without the need for unnecessary surgery, drugs or other invasive medical procedures.