Imagine the scenario. A 60 year old lady (she could be a relative of yours) undergoes a routine angioplasty for stable single vessel coronary disease. Unfortunately, shortly following the deployment of the stent into her 90% stenosis of her right coronary a dissection occurs, she suffers an acute myocardial infarction, and dies. She had signed a consent form prior to the procedure indicating that there was a 1% risk of heart attack, stroke or death but she had not been told that having a stent would not prevent a heart attack or prolong her life.  She had previously told her son that she didn’t want to have a heart attack implying that’s why she agreed to the have it done in the first place. Should the Cardiologist, who knew that the procedure would not provide any benefit for what mattered most the patient, and neglected to tell her, be prosecuted? Consent that is not fully informed is not consent at all. But rather than the exception such sequestering of patient important information is very much the norm.

One study revealed that 88% of patients believed they were having the procedure done for the very purpose of preventing a heart attack and 43% of cardiologists when anonymously asked said they would still go ahead and do the procedure even if they knew it would not benefit the patient. Monetary factors, enjoyment of performing the procedure and pressure to keep up numbers of cases for individual cardiologists and hospitals all contribute to overuse. But this is not in keeping with the practice of Evidence Based Medicine which is defined by the integration of individual clinical expertise, best available evidence and most importantly patient preferences and values.

When patient’s were explicitly told lack of prognostic benefit from angioplasty only 45.7% opted for the procedure versus 69.4% who were not explicitly given this information. It is estimated that such information given to patients with subsequent reduction in procedures could save US healthcare $864 million a year.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges state that doctors have an ethical responsibility to reduce waste because In a system with finite resources one doctors waste is another patients delay. In the UK approximately a third of coronary angioplasties, 30,000 a year are carried out for stable disease. For many this may be to alleviate symptoms which have not settled with medical therapy but studies suggest this benefit disappears after a year and the recent ORBITA trial suggests stenting offers no improvement in exercise capacity in patients with single vessel disease.

But “too much angioplasty” is just one symptom of a system failure where financial incentives trump patients at every level.

In the US it’s estimated that 20-50% of over $3 trillion dollars spent is inappropriate, wasting resources and/or harming patients.  In the UK Sir Bruce Keogh has suggested 1 in 7 of all medical and surgical treatments in the NHS should not have been carried out on patients.  The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges calculated that at least £2 billion is being wasted on treatments that have clear evidence of no benefit.  But this is likely a gross underestimate of billions more that could be saved/money that could be made better use of if patient preferences and values are taken into consideration.

A pioneering independent free website theNNT.com evaluates evidence based medicine with quick easy to read summaries according to patient important outcomes. It recently published a review that there was no mortality benefit in taking statins for those with a less than 20% risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next ten years. This risk profile represents the majority of at least 40 million taking statins worldwide but how many of them are aware of this? My own anecdotal twitter survey of 144 respondents revealed 92% would not take a statin on this information. Greater transparency when communicating true benefits and harms of any treatment is an easy win to rapidly improve value in the NHS whilst simultaneously empowering patients with more choice.

Improving the system will also require commissioners to financially reward doctors for carrying out a simple shared decision-making conversation with patients, not on the volume of operations or prescription of more medication which is ethically dubious at best. Every patient should also be empowered by asking the following questions as per the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges Choosing wisely campaign. Do I really need this test, medication or procedure? What are the risks? Are there simpler safer options? What happens if I do nothing?

The system is broken and can be rapidly fixed not by pouring in more money but by adhering to the principles of practising evidence based medicine where patient preferences truly matter.

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One Comment

  1. vincit veritas says:

    Interesting essay but the NHS still does need a large amount of additional funding and an end to privatisation. Private healthcare firms thrive on unnecessary treatments where these can be charged to the commissioner. It maybe that this occurs in the NHS and should be dealt with but it’s not going to happen quickly I would have thought, so not really a solution, on its own, to the problems of the NHS which have been deliberately carried out by the Tories in order to justify further privatisation

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