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Don't Think You Need a Test or Drug? Talk to Your Doctor

New poll suggests poor doctor-patient communication can lead to unnecessary treatment

doctor talking to patient

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Even when patients are given an order for a test or drug they doubt they need, many still have the test or take the medication.

En español | Older patients and their doctors often do not agree when it comes to the necessity of some medical tests and prescriptions, according to a new University of Michigan/AARP poll that focuses on the overuse of health care.

Only 14 percent of the 50- to 80-year-old adults surveyed in the University of Michigan/AARP National Poll on Healthy Aging agree that “more is usually better” when it comes to medical treatment.

One in six respondents said they doubt that all of the tests, medications and procedures their health care providers prescribe are needed. Among those who were skeptical, 43 percent said that in the past year their provider recommended what they believe was an unnecessary test, and 37 percent said they believe they didn’t need a medication that their doctor recommended or prescribed.

“These survey results show us that more attention needs to be focused on improving communication between patients and doctors,” says Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research at AARP. “Encouraging patients and doctors to routinely discuss the need for recommended procedures and medications should help prevent unnecessary treatments and cut health care costs.”

Even when patients are given an order for a test or drug they doubt they need, many still have the test or take the medication. Within the past year, 50 percent of those who doubted the necessity, said they had the recommended tests they thought were unnecessary, and 41 percent said they filled prescriptions they believe they didn’t need.

“The whole notion of the over-use of healthcare resources is getting more attention,” says Preeti Malani, professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the poll. “In the past, patients may not have thought as much about undergoing a lot of testing.”  “Now,” Malani adds, “people are more aware of the potential danger of falling into the rabbit hole of performing test after test and never arriving at a diagnosis. Both clinicians and patients are questioning whether testing is necessary or even harmful.”

But Malani cautions patients not to disregard their doctors’ recommendations without first talking with their health care providers.

“It can be concerning if some patients don’t follow their clinicians’ orders,” Malani says. “There may be a valid reason someone isn’t taking a prescribed drug — maybe the patient doesn’t like swallowing pills. If the doctor knows that, he or she can suggest alternatives. Patients should know it’s OK to ask questions. If your doctor is not willing to answer them, perhaps it’s time to find a new provider.”

Only 9 percent of those surveyed said that a health care provider told them they didn’t need a particular medication, test or procedure they thought they needed within the past year.

“Perhaps clinicians think it’s too difficult to argue with a patient who really wants a specific drug or test,” suggests Malani. “So they might go ahead with it. But it’s important to take the time to explain to a patient why something is or is not necessary.”

The National Poll on Healthy Aging results are based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,007 people ages 50 to 80 by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. It was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 to 2 percentage points.