According to a 2018 study, every year over 600,000 patients undergo a treatment—ranging from breast cancer screenings and pre-surgery labs to elective surgery—they don’t need, adding up to a whopping $282 million dollars. Many people tend to think “Why not?” when their physician suggests a test, surgery, or other procedure, but there are so many reasons to resist.
Not only could that extra medication, surgery, or doctor’s visit put a dent in your finances, it could also compromise your health. We asked some of the nation’s top health experts for tips on how to avoid unnecessary medical treatment, and what they had to say was extremely eye-opening.
A second opinion never hurt anyone—especially if you are having elective surgery, explains Bethesda, MD internist Matthew Mintz, MD. “Some surgeries are ’emergent,’ meaning not having surgery could be life threatening, such as an appendectomy for acute appendicitis. However, most surgeries are ‘elective,’ meaning that delaying surgery will not necessarily kill you,” he says. Examples include hip and knee replacements, spinal surgery, hysterectomies, etc. “Sometimes patients are afraid to get a second opinion because they do not want to offend their surgeon,” he continues. “Any good surgeon is not threatened by a second opinion, and some will even recommend it.” You may also want to consider getting a second opinion from a non-surgeon. “For example, meniscal repairs are quite common. They are usually effective and have minimal risk,” he points out.
A screening test is a test that looks for early disease in patients without symptoms—for example, mammograms and colonoscopies. Getting appropriate screening tests are critical to longevity and health. However, more tests are not necessarily better, points out Dr. Mintz. “False positives naturally occur, and can lead to unnecessary worry, further testing, and even unnecessary procedures,” he explains. While false positives are inherent in all screening tests, they are worse when done too soon, too late, or too often. “For example, while there is some controversy regarding getting mammograms between 40 and 50 years of age, women should not get mammograms before 40 in most cases,” he continues. “Even if you have heard of a woman who got breast cancer before 40, it is very rare and probably wasn’t diagnosed with a mammogram.”
Along these same lines, scanning the entire body is much more likely to produce false positives that will lead to unnecessary additional tests or worse, says Dr. Mintz. “There are several companies offering ‘virtual physicians.’ These are expensive, not covered by insurance, and not only unnecessary, but because of false positive testing, could be harmful.”
Almost everyone gets sick—especially during a nasty cold and flu season like we are experiencing this year. Whether it’s a sore throat or bronchitis, most upper respiratory tract illnesses are caused by viruses. And, Dr. Mintz points out, viruses aren’t affected by antibiotics. “Most viral illnesses take more than a week to resolve,” he explains. “Thus, people who are sick for more than a few days, and haven’t gotten better with over the counter medications, may go see their doctor and ask for antibiotics.” While there are certain conditions that warrant antibiotics, most people don’t need them. “The downside to taking antibiotics are not only the side effects of the medicines, but also the fact that they can affect the healthy bacteria in your gut, and can cause problems down the road,” he continues. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics is leading to resistance in many bacteria. “This means that the antibiotics we have to treat bacterial infections may no longer be effective.”
How well do you know your doctor and hospital’s track record? Before you see any medical expert, you should do your homework ahead of time, urges wellness expert Kelly Bryant. “I work with two populations who tend to have a fair number of unnecessary medical interventions: pregnant women and older, active folks,” she explains. “When it comes to either, it’s imperative that you know the reputation (and if possible, the statistics) of your practitioner and, if applicable, the hospital where they practice.”
For example, many pregnant women assume that they will be the one to avoid an unnecessary induction or Cesarean—when the practice has a 50% Cesarean or 90% induction rate. “If your doctor is reticent to divulge these numbers and you are seeking a natural birth, that should give you pause.” Similarly, if you are experiencing a chronic musculoskeletal issue, like low-back, knee, or hip pain, it’s important to know the reputation of your doctor. “If you don’t want surgery, don’t take your friend’s recommendation for the best orthopedic surgeon—they will want to perform surgery!” she points out. “Look for people who’ve had great, non-surgical treatment, if that’s what you want.”
Bottom line? “Never expect to be the exception to the rule. You are not likely to change the way your doctor practices medicine, so find a doctor who practices medicine the way you want to be treated.”
When vetting your doctor, always make sure to find out if they have any conflicts of interest. “Does he/she have some type of relationship to a particular laser company, medication or treatment protocol?” points out Niket Sonpal, MD, NYC Internist and gastroenterologist.
Avoiding regular medical checkups is never a good idea. Not only can health issues slip through the cracks and eventually worsen, but your physician can also help you with prevention methods, Dr. Sonpal says. “Get regular check ups so that problems don’t escalate,” he urges.
The beauty of the internet is that you have so many medical resources at your fingertips. “Visit the Mayo Clinic’s website for accurate, unbiased and thoroughly vetted information that details typical treatment for ailments/diseases,” suggests Dr. Sonpal. Additionally, Choosing Wisely is another great resource. “They have an initiative that seeks to shed light on unnecessary medical treatments.”
Baby aspirin can prevent heart attacks and strokes, explains Dr. Mintz. Until recently, they were recommended to most adults, especially seniors. However, recent evidence suggests that while that benefit is still there, that the risks they cause—which can involve stomach bleeding and hemorrhagic strokes—are not outweighed by the benefits. “Newer recommendations suggest more limited use of baby aspirin in only patients at higher risk,” he says. “Thus, even if you have been taking a baby aspirin a day for years, ask your doctor if it is still needed.”
There are countless offerings on the internet and elsewhere that might seem healthy, but are useless, potentially dangerous, and could be seriously hazardous for your health. “Cleanses, colonics, and anything that says ‘detoxify’ are at the top of the list, but there are many more,” says Dr. Mintz. You should also check with your doctor about any vitamins or supplements that you might be taking. “Just because you can buy it at a pharmacy or grocery store without a prescription doesn’t mean it is beneficial or even safe for you,” he reminds.
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 60 Secrets Nurses Don’t Want You to Know.