The U.S. spends huge amounts of money on health care that does little or nothing to help patients, and may even harm them. In Colorado, a new analysis shows that the number of tests and treatments conducted for which the risks and costs exceed the benefits has barely budged despite a decade-long attempt to tamp down on such care.
The state — including the government, insurers, and patients themselves — spent $134 million last year on what is called low-value care, according to the report by the Center for Improving Value in Health Care, a Denver nonprofit that collects billing data from health plans across Colorado. The top low-value items in terms of spending in each of the past three years were prescriptions for opiates, prescriptions for multiple antipsychotics, and screenings for vitamin D deficiency, according to the analysis.
Nationwide, those treatments raise costs, lead to health complications, and interfere with more appropriate care. But the structure of the U.S. health system, which rewards doctors for providing more care rather than the right care, has made it difficult to stop such waste. Even in places that have reduced or eliminated the financial incentive for additional testing, such as Los Angeles County, low-value care remains a problem.
And when patients are told by physicians or health plans that tests or treatments aren’t needed, they often question whether they are being denied care.
While some highly motivated clinicians have championed effective interventions at their own hospitals or clinics, those efforts have barely moved the needle on low-value care. Of the $3 trillion spent each year on health care in the U.S., 10% to 30% consists of this low-value care, according to multiple estimates.
“There’s a culture of ‘more is better,’” said Mark Fendrick, director of the University of Michigan Center for Value-Based Insurance Design. “And ‘more is better’ is very hard to overcome.”
To conduct its study, the Center for Improving Value in Health Care used a calculator developed by Fendrick and others that quantifies spending for services identified as low-value care by the Choosing Wisely campaign, a collaborative effort of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation and now more than 80 medical specialty societies.
Fendrick said the $134 million tallied in the report represents just “a small piece of the universe of no- and low-value care” in Colorado. The calculator tracks only the 58 services that developers were most confident reflected low-value care and does not include the costs of the cascade of care that often follows. Every dollar spent on prostate cancer testing in men over 70, for example, results in $6 in follow-up tests and treatments, according to an analysis published in JAMA Network Open in 2022.
In 2013, Children’s Hospital Colorado learned it had the second-highest rate of CT abdominal scans — a low-value service — among U.S. children’s hospitals, with about 45% of kids coming to the emergency room with abdominal pain getting the imaging. Research had shown that those scans were not helpful in most cases and exposed the children to unnecessary radiation.
Digging into the problem, clinicians there found that if ER physicians could not find the appendix on an ultrasound, they swiftly ordered a CT scan.
©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.