Nova Scotia

Doctors group pushes for physicians to stop doing unnecessary tests

A national campaign, which launched in Nova Scotia on Thursday, asks doctors, patients, and others in the healthcare field to think twice about over-prescribing and running unneeded tests.

Campaign says 30 per cent of tests, treatments, or procedures prescribed in Canada are unnecessary

A national campaign asks doctors, patients, and others in the healthcare field to think twice about over-prescribing and running unneeded tests. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

When Denice Klavano's young son became ill, like any parent she took him to the doctor, and came home with a prescription.

"I didn't think to ask any questions. I just provided my child with the medicine as directed," she said.

Shortly after starting the medication, her son developed a hand tremor. It wasn't until later Klavano found out that was a side effect of the drug.

Denice Klavano says her son's hand tremor is the result of a drug's side effect.

Two decades later, her son still has it.

"We returned to the doctor who said, 'Oh, well, we can discontinue it. I didn't think he really needed it anyway,'" said Klavano, who is now an advocate for patient safety. 

"I think I was of that generation, I was a young mom. The doctor says to do this, and so you do it. I didn't think to question. I wish I had." 

Campaign says 30% of tests unnecessary

It's these kinds of situations a new national program called "Choosing Wisely" is trying to prevent.

The national campaign, which launched in Nova Scotia on Thursday, asks doctors, patients, and others in the healthcare field to think twice about over-prescribing and running unneeded tests.

According to a report done with the Canadian Institute for Health Information, up to 30 per cent of the tests, treatments, or procedures prescribed in Canada are unnecessary.

"That's a lot of testing, a lot of worrying, and a lot of time that's spent on these tests unnecessarily," said emergency room doctor and Choosing Wisely Nova Scotia co-chair Connie LeBlanc.

Whether it's medication, X-rays, blood work, biopsies or other procedures, the treatment can expose patients to side effects, radiation, or lead to other infections.

Extra testing affecting wait times

They can also lead to false positives, causing unnecessary stress.

"We're not looking to not do any tests. What we're looking to do is do tests for the narrow window of people who will benefit. Will we miss things?" LeBlanc said.

"We'll miss things whether we test or not. But when we apply tests randomly, the false positive rate goes way up."

Doctors says medication, X-rays, blood work, biopsies or other procedures can expose patients to side effects, radiation, or lead to other infections. (Goodluz/Shutterstock)

Extra testing also increases wait times, meaning people who really need them done will have to wait longer.

"Physicians practicing today, we were trained in a system where it was embarrassing to miss anything. So doing a whole lot of testing, there was never significant attention given to the downside of testing. Now we know it's not a good idea for patients, and not a good idea for us," she said.

Checking testing off the list

LeBlanc says the most common unnecessary treatments are prescribing antibiotics for viral infections, ordering X-rays for lower back pain, and doing routine blood tests for people who are perfectly fine.

She said all physicians have prescribed them at one point or another. 

"I think we feel that patients want them," Leblanc said. "Sometimes patients feel valued when they get more testing.... A lot of our test ordering I think is emotional."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC reporter and host based in Winnipeg. She's reported nationally in Toronto and on Parliament Hill, with previous stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca or on social media @CBCMarina.

now