By Dr. Mercola
Last spring in a scathing criticism of the U.S. healthcare system, bNet.com columnist Ken Terry predicted that "waste and cruddy medical care" will continue to drive up health care costs until policymakers address the prevalence of deadly medical errors and needless treatments.
The story was driven by statistics showing that physicians order tests and procedures that, in too many cases, are totally unnecessary.
The fact is, on your next routine medical checkup, you have a 43 percent chance of undergoing an unnecessary medical test.
Collectively, these additional tests cost the U.S. health care system a staggering $700 billion a year, with just three of them – X-rays, CT scans, and biopsies – costing an extra $47 million to $194 million a year.
What's most disturbing is that these unnecessary tests often lead to even more tests that lead to unnecessary procedures – and even surgeries – that ultimately could cause harm or death.
According to a physician interviewed by CBS News:
"It happens all the time. The patient has no symptoms and doesn't smoke, but he gets a routine chest X-ray. If there is a small shadow, doctors are obligated to look further. That X-ray becomes a CT scan. That may show a small little nodule. The next thing you know, the patient ends up with a cardiothoracic surgeon who wants a needle biopsy, or even an open surgery. In a lot of these cases he comes up with nothing; a benign nodule or something."
'A Drumbeat of Disheartening Reports'
These unnecessary tests are both crippling the American health care system and killing us – literally and figuratively – through its distorted way of addressing symptoms rather than the cause of disease. In 2007, the U.S. was paying roughly twice what Canada, France, and the United Kingdom were paying per capita for health care. And according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the method in which U.S. doctors get paid – something called "fee-for-service" – encourages them to order unnecessary tests and procedures.
"In just one recent day, there were news stories about the widespread misdiagnosing of Alzheimer's disease, needless biopsies of patients suspected of having prostate cancer, cases of people contracting HIV during colonoscopies, and incidents in which babies received whole body irradiation instead of targeted X rays … There's a drumbeat of disheartening reports about the gap between theory and practice in medicine … The real shame of it is that so many patients are either harmed or not helped, diverting resources that could benefit others."
Your Chances of Getting Cancer from this ONE Medical Test is 1 in 250
A recent study showed that 83 percent of health care providers said the reason behind the extra tests they do is fear of being sued. But I believe there's another factor at work: in March 2011, the nonprofit group Public Citizen released a study showing that it's financial incentive, NOT fear of being sued that's driving unnecessary tests:
- Self-referring physicians (who have a financial interest in the testing procedures they refer patients to) are up to seven times more likely to order X-rays – although their interpretations are usually less accurate than regular radiologists'
- Self-referrers are also twice as likely to order other tests, and 40 percent more likely to order more complicated tests
- Use of one test – CT scans – increases by up to 300 percent when a physician has one of these machines in the office, or has a financial interest in one
Despite the well documented dangers and warnings that CT scans should be limited to life and death situations only, one in five Americans get this scan every year,.Statistics show that anyone who gets a CT scan has a 1 in 250 chance of getting cancer from it – the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every day.
How would you feel about flying if you knew a jumbo jet crashed every day, killing everyone on board? Is that really the kind of life-and-death situation you'd expect your health care provider to be putting you in? , Please take control of your health by avoiding these dangerous scans especially since their use scans has increased 330 percent since 1996.
Hospitals: Still the Most Dangerous Place
In her book, "Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer," Shannon Brownlee talks about the number of people who die in hospitals due to incorrect care, drug dosage or hospital-acquired infections. Even with new safety regulations in place, 180,000 hospitalized Americans still die every year from largely preventable causes – and the worst part about it, Brownlee says, is that as much as a third of that care does nothing to improve your health!
What happens is that you often get the tests we talked about above because of what your physician's specialty is, not because that's necessarily the test you need. For example 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," Brownlee says – even though the best success rate for spinal fusions is only 25 percent!
Angioplasties and certain types of chemotherapy with similar low success rates are just as prone to be ordered, Brownlee says, because that's where hospitals' investments lie. You see, they have all this equipment and they need to use it to get a return on it – but they also need to get you out of there as quickly as possible, so they can get the next patient in. What ensues is a type of aggressive patient therapy that can end in disaster: according to the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 7 Medicare recipients will be harmed every year as a result of the medical care they received in the hospital.
Classic Example of Why So Much Unnecessary Costs are Generated
Everybody agrees this needs to stop, including the New England Journal of Medicine, which recently used a fictional operating room joke to illustrate how unnecessary medical care drives up healthcare costs. The tale is about an orthopedic surgeon and an anesthesiologist who are scheduling the use of an operating room. "There is a fracture; I need to fix it," the doctor says. He's evasive with the details at first, but in the end he admits the "patient" is a 97-year-old woman who fell, broke her leg, went into cardiac arrest – and died. The macabre humor speaks to the problems of the medical system today – and one of those problems is defining the difference between need and want when it comes to medical procedures.
The fictional surgeon said he needed to fix the fracture. But the truth was, he only wanted to – and obviously, sometimes there's a big difference between need and want, with financial interests being the real deciding factor. That's why it's important that you, as a medical consumer, be your own advocate when it comes to health care decisions.
You can do this by:
- Asking questions when your doctor orders tests: what is each test for? Who will do the test? Are there any side effects? What if you don't get the test – how necessary is it to your care? Is the test "just to be sure," or is there a proven, scientific reason for doing it?
- If your doctor wants to do a procedure after the tests come back, ask the same questions all over again, including: Do you have a definitive diagnosis justifying the procedure? Are there any negative effects that I need to know about this procedure? What is the success rate of this procedure? What is the worst case scenario if we simply don't do it?
- If you go ahead with the tests and procedures, and your doctor wants to do a surgery or other type of intervention as a result, ask the same questions once more, and then:
- Ask, do I NEED these tests/procedures/surgery, or do you simply want them – and if so, for what reasons?
I admit some of these questions seem repetitive. But they NEED to be asked each and every time, for every single test performed on you. Remember, it's not only YOUR decision whether to get any or all of these tests and procedures, but your RIGHT to seek a second opinion somewhere else.
Natural is Better, and Less is More
Brownlee is adamant that the U.S. health care system can do better. Since the United States ranks 46th in the world in infant mortality and 49th in life expectancy, it's obvious that money doesn't buy health. The answer, then, to better health – and avoiding unnecessary tests and procedures in the first place – must be something else.
When it comes to figuring out what that "something else" is, I don't think there's anyone in the medical community anywhere who doesn't agree that simply changing your lifestyle can go a long way toward "fixing" a number of chronic conditions. As identified by the NIH, five life-changing factors that can do this are:
- Following a healthy diet
- Maintaining an optimal body weight
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Not smoking
- Keeping alcohol use to no more than one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men
That's not an impossible list. You've been hearing it from me for ages, but I'm thrilled that health officials are finally joining in, and trying to help you stay out of the hospital by giving you advice that really works! The great thing about these behavior changes is that they don't cost extra money to do – and they're almost guaranteed to save you money in the long run. I would add a few things to this list, though.
What Constitutes a Healthy Lifestyle?
Of all the healthy lifestyle strategies I know of that can have a significant impact on your health, normalizing your insulin and leptin levels is probably the most important. There is no question that this is an absolute necessity if you want to avoid disease and slow down your aging process. That means modifying your diet to avoid excessive amounts of fructose, grains, and other pro-inflammatory ingredients like trans fats.
In addition to the items mentioned above, these additional strategies can further help you stay healthy:
- Learn how to effectively cope with stress – Stress has a direct impact on inflammation, which in turn underlies many of the chronic diseases that kill people prematurely every day, so developing effective coping mechanisms is a major longevity-promoting factor.
Meditation, prayer, physical activity and exercise are all viable options that can help you maintain emotional and mental equilibrium. I also strongly believe in using energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to address deeper, oftentimes hidden emotional problems.
- Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels to between 50 and 70 ng/ml.
- Animal based omega-3 fats – Correcting the ratio of omega-3 to healthful omega-6 fats is a strong factor in helping people live longer. This typically means increasing your intake of animal based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil, while decreasing your intake of damaged omega-6 fats (think trans fats).
- Get most of your antioxidants from foods –Good sources include blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, beans, and artichokes.
- Use coconut oil – Another excellent anti-aging food is coconut oil, known to reduce your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, and lower your cholesterol, among other things.
- Avoid as many chemicals, toxins, and pollutants as possible – This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
- Avoid prescription drugs – Pharmaceutical drugs kill thousands of people prematurely every year – as an expected side effect of the action of the drug. And, if you adhere to a healthy lifestyle, you most likely will never need any of them in the first place.
Incorporating these healthy lifestyle guidelines will help set you squarely on the path to optimal health and give you the best shot at living a much longer life. Remember, it's never too late to take control of your health. And when you do go to the doctor, know that it's OK to ask questions and opt for less medical intervention while choosing a more natural way of healing your body – you should NEVER think that you're not supposed to, or can't, ask questions of the person you've entrusted with your body.