The recent news that stents inserted in patients with heart disease to keep arteries open work no better than a placebo ought to be shocking. Each year, hundreds of thousands of American patients receive stents for the relief of chest pain, and the cost of the procedure ranges from $11,000 to $41,000 in US hospitals.
But in fact, American doctors routinely prescribe medical treatments that are not based on sound science.The stent controversy serves as a reminder that the United States struggles when it comes to winnowing evidence-based treatments from the ineffective chaff. As surgeon and health care researcher Atul Gawande observes, “Millions of people are receiving drugs that aren’t helping them, operations that aren’t going to make them better, and scans and tests that do nothing beneficial for them, and often cause harm.
”Of course, many Americans receive too little medicine, not too much. But the delivery of useless or low-value services should concern anyone who cares about improving the quality, safety and cost-effectiveness of medical care. Estimates vary about what fraction of the treatments provided to patients is supported by adequate evidence, but some reviews place the figure at under half.
Naturally that carries a heavy cost: One study found that overtreatment — one type of wasteful spending — added between $158 billion and $226 billion to US health care spending in 2011.