Study Finds It's Not Cancer Patients Who Push for Unnecessary Tests and Treatments

February 13, 2015
Christina Izzo

Although some physicians may blame patient demands for the increase in medical costs, a new study has shown that cancer patients rarely push their doctor to run unnecessary tests and treatments.

Although some physicians may blame patient demands for the increase in medical costs, a new study has shown that cancer patients rarely push their doctor to run unnecessary tests and treatments.

Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, and his colleagues in the Abramson Cancer Center and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania conducted the study, which was published in the inaugural issue of JAMA Oncology.

“We decided to look specifically at cancer patients’ demands because oncology is a setting where there are life-and-death stakes for patients, and the drugs and tests can get very expensive,” said senior author Emanuel, chair of the department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Penn. “However, we found, contrary to expectations, that patient demands are low and cannot be a key driver of increasing healthcare costs.”

The study examined 5050 patient-clinician encounters and found that 440 (8.7%) of those included a patient demand or request for a medical intervention. Clinicians complied with 365 of the demands they deemed clinically appropriate. However, of the 50 demands requesting clinically inappropriate tests or treatments, clinicians only complied with seven (0.14% of the 5050 encounters).

About half of the requests (49.1%) were for imaging studies, 13.6% were for laboratory tests such as tumor markers, and 5.2% were for genetic tests or chemosensitivity tests. Surprisingly, 15.5% of patient demands or requests were for palliative care interventions, such as pain medications and sleeping aides and just 3.6% of patient demands or requests were for chemotherapy. Less than 1% of patients requested expensive proton beam therapy.

The researchers surveyed 60 clinicians, including 34 oncologists, 11 oncology fellows, and 15 nurse practitioners and physician assistants, immediately following patient encounters at three Philadelphia hospitals (The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, and Pennsylvania Hospital) between October 2013 and June 2014. The goals of the interviews were to determine frequency of patient requests or demands for tests and treatments, whether those requests were appropriate, whether they were granted and why.

Not surprisingly, the study also found that patients who had worse relationships with their physicians and those on active therapy, were more likely to make demands or requests for tests or treatments.

“We observed very few patient demands for inappropriate treatments, and it was even rarer that a physician complied with the demand,” said lead author Keerthi Gogineni, MD, MSHP, who was an instructor in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center when the study was conducted and is now a faculty member at Emory University. “In this age of unregulated consumer medical information on the Internet, it’s encouraging to see that this hasn’t translated to cancer patients requesting inappropriate—and often costly—tests and treatments.”