Across the country, thousands of Americans are going under the knife for surgeries that are completely unnecessary, according to a new US Today investigation. After reviewing information from government records and medical databases, USA Today concluded that unnecessary surgeries may account for 10 to 20 percent of all operations in some specialties.
Since 2005, more than 1,000 doctors have paid to settle or close malpractice claims in which patients allege they received a surgery they did not need. About half those settlements involved allegations of “serious permanent injury or death” — and, since many of the cases had multiple plaintiffs, thousands of Americans may be victims of this type of medical oversight. Pacemaker implants, knee replacements, hysterectomies, and cesarean sections are among the most common surgical procedures that are performed in cases when they’re not actually necessary.
“There’s no financial reason not to do it, so there’s no pressure,” Lucian Leape, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who has studied unnecessary surgery for decades, explained to USA Today. “There are no regulators breathing down their backs; Medicare and the insurance companies continue to pay for it.”
In fact, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that hospitals actually profit more off of their botched surgeries than they do from surgeries that go smoothly. The same is true for unnecessary procedures. Doctors make more money for each surgery they do, even if it’s a procedure that isn’t needed or a follow-up procedure to correct an earlier mistake.
There’s no way to know the full scope of the issue. The federal government doesn’t currently require hospitals to track data on these types of surgical mistakes, and not every American who undergoes unnecessary surgery will end up suing their doctor. Although the especially egregious cases of medical malpractice may get some coverage in the mainstream media — like a recent case in which 100 patients allege that a Cincinnati doctor performed experimental spinal surgeries without their consent — many less sensational cases go unreported.
USA Today points out that, even though the problem takes an “enormous” toll on both the American people and the health care industry, it remains largely hidden. “It’s a very serious issue, (and) there really hasn’t been a movement to address it,” Leape said.
Encouraging patients to seek a second opinion about getting surgery, rather than simply taking one doctor’s word for it, can help. Americans tend to put a lot of faith in their doctors and don’t often feel the need to question them. But previous studies have found that requiring a mandatory second opinion leads to a 20 percent drop in certain surgeries that tend to have a higher rate of unnecessary procedures. Consumer protection tools, like public lists of common unnecessary tests and procedures, can also help Americans think critically about whether to agree to what their doctor is recommending.