Lest I seem to unfairly single out orthopedic surgeons and urologists for turning a blind eye to evidence that refutes long-standing medical practices, a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that specialist societies (membership organizations of physicians whom my friend and family medicine colleague Richard Young dubs "-ologists") are generally likely to resist reversals of practice. In 20 examples of high-quality, high-profile studies that provided evidence for medical reversals, nearly half of official -ologist society responses defended the practice, an effect that was more pronounced when a reversed practice was rated by the authors as of high importance to members of the responding society (e.g., mammography to radiologists).
Resistance to what physician and health services researcher Peter Ubel calls "de-innovation" is driven by more than just fear of declining income. In a Health Affairs commentary, Dr. Ubel identified several psychological biases that cause -ologists to reject new evidence that contradicts established practices: preconceptions (tendency to favor information that confirms prior beliefs), clinical experiences, mistaking association for causality, and reduction of cognitive dissonance.
Primary care clinicians are not immune to these biases, but a family physician's greater tolerance for uncertainty may be advantageous in adapting to medical reversals and reducing overuse of low-value (or no-value) care, such as PSA screening for prostate cancer. In contrast, -ologists may perform unnecessary tests in attempts to eliminate uncertainty, such as an unenhanced CT scan to "rule out" a 2-mm nonobstructing kidney stone that would not change management:
What drives doctors to order tests? We order tests because we must know why. Anything can be known morphs into everything must be known. ... We order CTs because we can. The CT heals us, and our patients. Uncertainty ails. Our intolerance of uncertainty is neither congenital nor stochastic. Our dislike of uncertainty has grown with the availability of imaging. It has reached its apotheosis because of rapid door-to-CT time, the removal of barriers to ordering, and the speed with which reports are rendered. ... So much waste can be avoided by using probability and numbers and applying judgment—the components of rational medical decision making.
Although the relationships between providers of health care, costs, and overuse are complex, recent evidence supports associations between comprehensive primary care and lower costs and higher continuity of care and less overuse. Given these findings, it's not surprising that Atul Gawande's latest New Yorker piece, "Overkill," concluded that tackling overuse in health care meant supporting and empowering clinicians whose generalist training, experience, and tolerance for uncertainty makes them best suited to replace unnecessary care with necessary care: family physicians.