A study coming out of Harvard this week reveals that ordinary headaches are being overtreated, and it’s costing billions of extra dollars in health care spending.
Each year more than 12 million Americans visit their doctors complaining of headaches, which result in lost productivity and costs of upward of $31 billion annually. A new study by researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) suggests some of that cost could be offset by physicians ordering fewer tests and an increased focus on counseling about lifestyle changes.
The study looked at over 9,000 doctor visits for headaches over a 10-year period (that’s about 144 million visits for headache alone!). The researchers found that over time doctors increasingly ordered more imaging tests—CT scans and MRIs—and also made more referrals to specialists and wrote more drug prescriptions.
Sixty-two percent of imaging tests were considered inappropriate.
This overuse has significant consequences, because incidental findings provoke unnecessary patient anxiety, can lead to more invasive procedures and often require follow-up testing.
Not to mention that CT scans come with a radiation risk. Approximately 2 to 3 abdominal CTs give the same radiation exposure as experienced by Hiroshima survivors.
But the physicians spent considerably less time with patients discussing possible underlying causes for the headaches and lifestyle changes, such as diet, stress reduction and physical therapy.
The researchers note:
Despite the publication of numerous practice guidelines, clinicians are increasingly ordering advanced imaging and referring to specialists while less frequently suggesting first-line lifestyle modifications to their patients. The management of headache represents an area of particular concern for our healthcare system and stands out as an important opportunity to improve the value of healthcare in the United States. [my emphasis]
Related post: Home remedies for headaches
The trend is certainly for doctors to spend less time with patients. But always be prepared with questions. When a diagnostic or treatment plan is discussed, make sure you understand what is being ordered and what are the alternatives.
Related post: Three questions to ask your physician
More treatment is not always better, and it’s certainly more expensive.