Medical Records & Stethoscope

This reversal of a commonly used phrase is a plea. A plea against the bias that leans doctors towards diagnosing and treating, even when the scientific evidence may not support it. Sure, it is expected that a doctor will diagnose and treat you, but sometimes there is no diagnosis or effective treatment, and pursuing either may be harmful. When in doubt, your doctor will continue to run tests until something comes up, and will continue to treat you for as long as you return with symptoms. Sometimes, not pursuing a diagnosis and not treating a patient are reasonable options. Sometimes they are the best option.

The biases towards ‘doing something’ instead of reassuring patients and having them rely (heaven forbid) on their own coping skills are grouped below. The harms from overdiagnosis and overtreatment are covered extensively in previous blog posts such as: Overdiagnosed (book review), Overtreated (book review), Reasons to Operate, Overdiagnosis (overview), and Cancer Screening Part 1 and Part 2.

1. Defensive medicine

Defensive medicine is commonly practiced and can take many forms, such as ordering extra tests, sending patients for more referrals, avoiding patients with certain conditions, and avoiding performing high risk procedures. The area of concern here is not the avoidance of procedures, but the deliberate intervention, in the face of doubt, in order to be seen to be acting (presumably in the patients best interests).

When there is doubt about the advisability of an intervention, you are less likely to be blamed for taking the more aggressive approach and subjecting the patient to the intervention, than choosing the conservative, wait-and-see option. “At least the doctor tried” the relatives and the jury will say. Had you taken the conservative option, they would be thinking: “He didn’t even give it a chance” or “He didn’t do anything”. Judges, juries, patients and relatives do not always consider a scientific analysis of the relative risks and benefits of two alternative treatments, and nor are they often offered such an analysis to consider. What they do consider is the perception of the intent of the doctor.

The downside of defensive medicine is comprehensively recorded at Defensive medicine is not the only reason that doctors intervene more than they should, but it is just one of the areas we should be working on to reduce overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

2. The language of action versus inaction

The legal system is responsible for at least some of the over-intervention in medicine. Language (or at least the hijacking of meaning) is also partly responsible. The term ‘conservative treatment’ used to mean mainstream, now it means old-fashioned or over-cautious, and it can be used to imply reluctance, fear or lack of competence in the face of new interventions.

There are examples of how we can use language to influence decision making. Facing patients with common fractures, often a decision needs to be made between surgical and non-surgical treatment. The surgeon would be correct, but misleading, if he explained the alternatives as either “fixing the fracture” or “leaving it alone”. This tells us nothing of the relative risks and benefits of the alternatives, but who wouldn’t choose the former?

3. The influence of recent experience

Doctors are human, and are therefore influenced by their own recent experiences. For example, obstetricians who attend a birth with complications are significantly more likely to recommend and perform a Caesarean section in their next 50 cases (here), showing how we are influenced by recent experience and how we tend to practice defensively.

4. The lottery mindset

“I know the chance is slim Doc, but let’s go for it”, is how Nortin Hadler puts it (see my next book review). People will go for the aggressive treatment with the one in a thousand chance of pulling off something great (that is probably closer to one in a million, or zero in a thousand), and accept all the associated risks, rather than leaving the condition to the vagaries of nature. Doctors play on that mindset.

5. Misplaced belief

One of the main reasons that doctors continue to diagnose and treat at any cost is that they overestimate the benefits and underestimate the harms. They see what they want to see when they recall the successful cases from the past and downplay or block out the poor outcomes. Patients share this bias, and as Ivan Illich said: “Magic works if and when the intent of the patient and magician coincides”.

6. The prevailing wisdom

Currently, doctors appear more likely to be acting in the best interest of the patient if they act; even more so if they act aggressively. It also appears to be an admission of failure if the doctor does not (or cannot) diagnose or treat a patient, regardless of whether of not it is in the patient’s best interest. There is a lack of skepticism towards medical practice.

The bottom line

The underestimated harms of pursuing treatment and diagnosis need to be recognised, and there needs to be acceptance of a doctor saying: “I don’t know what is causing your symptoms, but further tests are unlikely to be helpful and may show up other things that will concern you or lead to further tests and treatments that may harm you and provide no benefit. Similarly, there are no effective treatments for this condition, so it would be better if you adapted your activities, accepted that some symptoms may persist, be comforted that they are unlikely to get worse, and spend your time (and money) on more rewarding activities than seeing me”.


Dr Skeptic an is academic surgeon with an interest in the scientific evidence for the true effectiveness of medical practice, as opposed to the perceived effectiveness, and why there is a difference between the two.

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