USA TODAY study shows prevalence of unnecessary surgeries

The phrase "defensive medicine" has increasingly gained awareness in recent years. This phrase commonly refers to a doctor's overzealous ordering of unnecessary services for patients.

According to an investigation conducted by USA TODAY, many physicians order needless tests or procedures as a way to mitigate the chances of a lawsuit.

After investigating various medical databases and public records, researchers came up with a list of the top unnecessary surgical procedures performed in the U.S. today:

1. Cardiac Angioplasties: This procedure involves inflating a small balloon in a person's blocked artery. Traditionally it's conducted on those who have suffered from a heart attack. However, the study revealed that many patients who did not suffer heart attacks still received angioplasties.

2. Heart pacemakers: Physicians typically insert pacemakers to correct heartbeat abnormalities. But, the data showed that up to 22 percent of recipients were given pacemakers who did not necessarily need them.

3. Spinal fusions: A spinal fusion involves joining two or more spinal vertebrae to correct a spine condition. But, the results showed that many patients who underwent the procedure did not have abnormal neurological or radiology findings typically needed for a fusion.

4. Hysterectomies: The procedure involves removing a female's uterus. However, in an astonishing 70 percent of cases, information showed that the procedure wasn't needed and likely over inclusive.

5. Knee surgeries: The procedure can involve, for instance, replacing a knee joint or removing cartilage. However, the data concludes that many times the procedure works "no better than a placebo surgery" and isn't necessary.

6. Cesarean sections: The procedure involves delivering a baby via incision in the lower pelvis instead of vaginal and occurs roughly 32 percent of all deliveries today. However, this number is double what the World Health Organization recommended c-section rate should be.

Reasons behind these unnecessary surgeries

According to one former surgeon and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, there are a couple of potential reasons why these procedures are frequently happening:

  • Profit: Some doctors, he indicates, simply create health conditions to warrant a surgical procedure. A case in point involves a dermatologist recently sentenced to 22 years in prison for falsely diagnosing skin cancer in various patients in order to perform profitable surgery. C-sections are another example. They reduce labor time but also boost hospital profits due to the additional care needed.
  • Incompetence: Another reason, he indicates, is due to incompetence. Many doctors today simply do not have the widespread training on less evasive-and often better-alternative treatments. So, he indicates, they automatically opt for surgery to fix the problem.

John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center indicates that there are certain doctors who are "crooked," but many more who lack the necessary training to determine if surgery is really needed.

Prior concern

Despite the anxiousness surrounding medical malpractice laws today, this isn't the first time experts have worried about unnecessary surgical procedures.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health Professor, this issue has been forefront since the mid 1970s. A congressional report released at that time showed that there were roughly 2.4 million unnecessary surgeries.

Unfortunately, he says, today "things haven't changed much."