When I was an internal medicine resident, one of my staff attending’s, Dr. Charles Reasner, used to ask, “What is the indication for ordering a TSH?” This is a test of thyroid function (thyroid stimulating hormone), and he was asking what reasons should one order the test. His answer was to order it if you think about it. An overactive (hyperthyroidism) or under-active (hypothyroidism) thyroid can cause many different kinds of symptoms, treatment is relatively easy, and the test is inexpensive. Thus he said if it occurred to you to order the test, then you should do so.
Unfortunately the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)does not allow us to order tests based on intuition, even though numerous studies have shown that people often make their best decisions based on reasons they can’t explain. When a quarterback such as Peyton Manning throws a football to a receiver, he first has to make the decision what to do very quickly, while a 300 pound lineman is bearing down on him. Based on prior experience he can quickly survey the field and make a decision where to throw the ball before he could make a decision based on a logical analysis. He might not be able to explain exactly why he did something, but his skill and training contributed to making the right decision seemingly without thinking.
When physicians order a test, we have to associate a diagnosis. Presumably the main purpose is to prevent wasting money for ordering tests. Although there is no benefit in ordering a PSA test for a diagnosis of glaucoma, for example, this only catches errors in the test ordered or diagnoses associated, which probably doesn’t happen often. It’s a real problem though for ordering a vitamin D level.
Medicare no longer covers a screening test for vitamin D, even though perhaps 85% of patients in the United States are deficient, treatment is cheap, and it probably saves money in the long run. Once a patient is diagnosed with osteoporosis then a level is covered, but that’s too late. Plus in men a screening bone density test is not covered, so it’s a Catch-22 situation.
At least if not that expensive, physicians should be able to order labs because they think of them. Insurance companies and the government should trust our intuition.