​Choosing diagnostic tests wisely: Doing the little things well


There was such a wonderful response to the Choosing Surgery Wisely paper from Dr Roland Grad and medical students Nicholas Meti and Mathieu Rousseau, that they have submitted another!

Dr Grad's poster at PODC2015

Dr Grad's poster at PODC2015

You may remember Dr Grad, a family physician and researcher at McGill University, from his poster on harnessing InfoPOEMS to find potential topics for the Choosing Wisely Campaign, which he also presented at the Preventing Overdiagnosis conference this year (PODC2015). [click to view the more recent poster in PDF format]

Again, Rousseau and Meti worked with Dr Grad to extend this work and look at InfoPOEMs that dealt with three topics in diagnostic testing: stable TSH measurements, screening mammography, and mid-stream urine collection. Guided by clinical questions pertaining to these topics and the best available evidence, they make a clear case that we need to choose very wisely when considering 'routine' testing. There are some apt qualitative insights provided by physicians reflecting on the practice-changing POEMs (Patient-Oriented Evidence that Matters) included in this research, which will undoubtedly help it to resonate with readers.

Please feel free to leave questions or comments below or contact the authors directly. If you would like to submit a guest-post for consideration, email lessismoremedicine@gmail.com.

Choosing diagnostic tests wisely: Doing the little things well

Rousseau, M., Meti, N., Grad, R. Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


As clinicians, do we challenge the appropriateness of our diagnostic test ordering? To achieve shared decision-making in health care, it is up to clinicians to communicate both the harms (as well as the benefits) of diagnostic testing. Within the concept of shared-decision making, there are three core practices: 1) Identifying that a decision must be made; 2) Communicating the potential benefits and harms of options to patients; and 3) Incorporating what is important to patients within the decision. The latter may require us to consider other questions: What would be the impact of this test on the patient’s quality of life? What about the interval between follow-up tests? What is the impact on the economy when diagnostic tests and follow-ups are considered at scale? When clinicians think about ordering a test (or not), we suspect their decision is based on “routines” and “experience”. The point of this post is not to argue against the “art of medicine”, but to raise awareness of new research that can inform decisions about diagnostic testing.

In this post, we highlight the findings of three recent diagnostic test studies. Study findings were disseminated to Canadian physicians as ‘POEMs’. For those unfamiliar with this acronym, POEMs are tailored synopses of primary research or systematic reviews, selected in a process that involves searching over 100 journals. [1] Since 2005, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) delivers one POEM to their members by email on weekdays. As described in a prior guest post (Choosing Surgery Wisely), we identified the following POEMs by analyzing the ratings of all daily POEMs (n=255) collected from physician members of the CMA in 2014.

CLINICAL QUESTION: “How much do seemingly stable thyroid tests vary over time? / POEM Title: Stable TSH can be rechecked in 2 years”

In a cohort study, the authors asked how frequently do patients with treated hypothyroidism need to have their TSH measured. [2] From a sample size of over 700 persons treated with levothyroxine, they were able to identify a subgroup that would benefit from less frequent TSH monitoring based on their dose of levothyroxine. They report that patients receiving less than 125 micrograms per day could have their TSH rechecked in two years instead of annually. Importantly, this study highlights that once TSH has normalized, the frequency of subsequent monitoring can be stratified based on dosing.

Monitoring frequency is a relevant issue in the clinic setting. In the absence of evidence, many clinicians assume default rates for all manner of diagnostic test and treatment plans. We read the free-text comments submitted by CMA physicians about this POEM. Some of these physicians expressed surprise at the association between dose and frequency of monitoring. Others reported the following: had they known about this approach, they would have spread out the visits for their healthier patients. This would save time and provide costs savings for the healthcare system. Although not addressed by this study, one physician even raised the question of whether we need to be checking TSH levels at all in an asymptomatic patient.


CLINICAL QUESTION: “What are the trade-offs of benefits and harms for women considering a mammogram to screen for breast cancer? / POEM Title: Numbers to help women understand the benefits/ harms of screening mammography”

Welch et al. believe primary care physicians should have more balanced discussions with their patients about the benefits and harms of screening mammography. [3] Their premise is that the majority of discussions focus on the possibility of avoiding death from breast cancer, and do not include a discussion of false alarms nor overdiagnosis. The authors used currently available data from trials of screening mammography to give a range of estimates for harms and benefits with the hope that this information would help decisions about screening. Their results are summarized in this table. Note that the numbers are per-one-thousand women, screened yearly for 10 years:

Figure 1: Estimates of harms and benefits of screening mammography

We received mixed feedback from physicians who read this POEM. Some physicians were grateful to have empiric data to help them in their discussions with patients. One wrote it is “helpful to have the actual numbers presented in such a way that I can share info with the patient when discussing mammograms and screening - always easier when there are numbers that we can look at”, and these numbers “make discussion around breast cancer more objective”. However, others wrote that even though “it is much easier to communicate this information to a patient by simply selecting the age group she falls into, and presenting the numbers for that group [...], I have not yet had a patient who didn't just simply choose the mammogram”. It seems that numbers do not tell the entire story… “because this is an emotional issue, most women we counsel opt for the regular screening”.

The importance of this topic to primary care is high, because as one CMA member wrote “the harms of false positives are seen first-hand in primary care”.

CLINICAL QUESTION: “How accurately does a midstream urine culture predict the results of a catheterized urine culture? POEM Title: Interpretation of midstream urine cultures in healthy young women with suspected UTI”

What about the practice of empirically treating suspected urinary tract infection in otherwise healthy women without relying on culture? In a diagnostic test evaluation study, midstream urine cultures with any evidence of E. coli or K. pneumoniae strongly suggested a true infection, while the presence of enterococci or group B streptococci had little predictive value. [4]

Feedback from physicians who read this POEM showed appreciation for the findings and included comments such as this one: “As a walk-in clinic doctor, urinary symptoms are a very common reason for visits. I routinely treat women on spec for these UTI's and don't send their urine for culture unless it is a complicated UTI, the patient has significant comorbidities, or the patient has recently been on antibiotics.”

The practice of empirically treating suspected urinary tract infection in otherwise healthy women without relying on culture was recommended in a recent review by Grigoryan et al. [5] Her group reviewed the optimal approach for treating acute cystitis in young healthy women and analyzed studies totalling 259 397 patients. This showed that “immediate antimicrobial therapy is recommended rather than delayed treatment or symptom management with ibuprofen alone”.

This choosing-wisely-approach to a common infection was perfectly summarized in this comment submitted by another physician: “great info [in this POEM]. Sometimes we just do too much testing”.


As we reflect on all this, we see that even if one test “can’t hurt”, at scale the impact can be large for publicly funded health care systems. This point has been made by others. For example, Kale et al showed how “routine” diagnostics tests cost large sums of money. [6] Primary health care faces a big challenge in reconsidering how diagnostic testing is used, to ensure better value for all.


1. Grad RM, Pluye P, Tang DL, Shulha M, Slawson DC, Shaughnessy AF. 'POEMs’ suggest potential clinical topics for the Choosing Wisely Campaign. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 2015;28:184-189. http://www.jabfm.org/content/28/2/184

2. Pecina J, Garrison GM, Bernard ME. Levothyroxine dosage is associated with stability of thyroid-stimulating hormone values. Am J Med 2014;127(3):240-245 http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(13)01021-8/abstract

3. Welch HG, Passow HJ. Quantifying the benefits and harms of screening mammography. JAMA Intern Med 2014; Dec 30 http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1792915

4. Hooton TM, Roberts PL, Cox ME, Stapleton AE. Voided midstream urine culture and acute cystitis in premenopausal women. N Engl J Med 2013;369(20):1883-1891 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1302186

5. Grigoryan L, Trautner BW, Gupta K. Diagnosis and Management of Urinary Tract Infections in the Outpatient Setting. JAMA. 2014;312(16):1677-1684. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1917443

6. Kale MS, Bishop TF, Federman AD, Keyhani S. "Top 5" lists top $5 billion. Arch Intern Med 2011;171(20):1856-1858

Choosing surgery wisely: the importance of evidence-based practice


Very little research has been done so far in the area of appropriateness in health care, so it is is always a delight to see what is being worked on.

You may remember Roland Grad, a family physician and research at the University of McGill, from his poster on harnessing InfoPOEMS to find potential topics for the Choosing Wisely Campaign.

Two ambitious McGill medical students, Nicholas Meti and Mathieu Rousseau, worked with Dr Grad to extend that work and look at InfoPOEMs that dealt specifically with surgical interventions which are considered unnecessary or harmful to patients.

Many agree that there's room for the Choosing Wisely campaign to improve; this research presents a potentially fruitful way to do so, particularly for the orthopaedics recommendations which have been heavily criticized to date.

Choosing surgery wisely: the importance of evidence-based practice

Meti, N., Rousseau, M., Grad, R. Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

An emerging trend among physician organizations is to attempt to control or reduce the rate of unnecessary medical tests and treatments. Until recently, the principle manner to release updated recommendations for practice was through meetings where experts discussed which tests or treatments needed to be questioned.  

We developed a novel means of analyzing nascent research articles for their applicability towards improving the “Choosing Wisely” topic selection process [1]. This method is based on analyzing the ratings of daily POEMs, collected from physician members of the CMA. POEMs are tailored synopses of primary research or systematic reviews, selected by searching over 100 journals. POEMs are delivered to over 20,000 members of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) by email on weekdays.

At the 2015 ‘Preventing Overdiagnosis’ conference, one of us (RG) will report on the top POEMs of 2014, as rated by CMA members with respect to their potential to help them to ‘avoid an unnecessary diagnostic test or treatment’ [1]. Of the topics addressed by these top 20 POEMs of 2014, only 2 were discussed in the Choosing Wisely master list of recommendations. Of the remaining 18 topics, three were related to surgical interventions; we highlight their important findings.

In a study published in The Bone and Joint Journal, Kukkonen et al. used the Constant Shoulder Score to show that among patients with symptomatic non-traumatic supraspinatus tears, physiotherapy alone is as effective as physiotherapy combined with acromioplasty after 1-year follow up [2].

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Sihvoven et al. investigated whether arthroscopic surgery would improve outcomes for select patients with a degenerative tear of the medial meniscus. The researchers conducted a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial involving patients without knee osteoarthritis, but with symptoms of a degenerative medial meniscus tear. Surgery was found to be ineffective for non-traumatic partial medial meniscus tears [3].

A study published in JAMA by Primrose et al. [4] questioned the routine practice of intensive follow-up after surgery for colorectal cancer, as there existed no evidence to support this common practice. In a randomized controlled trial, 1,202 participants were assigned to 4 groups: CEA only, CT only, CEA+CT, or minimum follow-up. Their results demonstrated that among patients who had undergone curative surgery for primary colorectal cancer: 1) intensive imaging or CEA screening each provided an increased rate of surgical treatment of recurrence with curative intent, compared with minimal follow-up; 2) there was no advantage in combining CEA and CT; and 3) there was no statistically significant survival advantage to any strategy.

One concern about the development of top five lists in Choosing Wisely is the potential for individual specialties to choose the low hanging fruit. For example, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons included no major surgical procedures in their top 5 list, despite evidence of wide variation in elective knee replacement and arthroscopy rates [5]. This observation is not meant to be a criticism of orthopedic surgeons per se, as many surgeons are strong advocates for their patients (see http://www.thepatientfirst.org). [Less is More readers will remember one of the founders, Dr James Rickert, from What Can Patients Do in the Face of Physician Conflict of Interest]

Our point is to drive home the underlying philosophy of the “Choosing Wisely” campaign: ‘routine’ testing or treatment without evidence-based support can be found insidiously entrenched in all disciplines.


1. Grad RM, Pluye P, Shulha M, Tang DL. POEMs Reveal Candidate Clinical Topics for the Choosing Wisely Campaign. Preventing Overdiagnosis Conference, Bethesda, MD, September 2015.

2. Kukkonen J, Joukainen A, Lehtinen J, et al. Treatment of non-traumatic rotator cuff tears: A randomised controlled trial with one-year clinical results. Bone Joint J 2014; 96(1):75-81.  

3. Sihvonen R, Paavola M, Malmivaara A, et al., for the Finnish Degenerative Meniscal Lesion Study (FIDELITY) Group. Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy versus sham surgery for a degenerative meniscal tear. N Engl J Med 2013; 369(26):2515-2524.    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1305189

4. Primrose JN, Perera R, Gray A, et al., for the FACS Trial Investigators. Effect of 3 to 5 years of scheduled CEA and CT follow-up to detect recurrence of colorectal cancer. The FACS randomized clinical trial. JAMA 2014; 311(3): 263-270. 

5. Morden NE, Colla CH, Sequist TD, Rosenthal MB. Choosing Wisely—the politics and economics of labeling low-value service. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:589-92. 

Addendum! Scholarships for Students to PODC2015! #overdiagnosis

For any students interested in attending Preventing Overdiagnosis 2015 in Bethesda, Maryland (near Washington DC), there are student registration rates and bursaries available!

It's an amazing opportunity to learn more, meet others studying/working/researching in this area, and to develop your own ideas.

Don't miss out:

We are pleased to be able to offer 50 reduced places for Medical and Health Science students. These places are available at a fee of £95 ($143) on a first come first served basis. During registration you will be asked to confirm your student status, please add your current role, organisation and student number if appropriate.

Bursary applications are being accepted. To apply please email a brief application using the following structure to info@preventingoverdiagnosis.net accompanied with a brief CV.
– Your current position and any work or experience in overdiagnosis or related areas
– How you would use what you learned from attending PODC2015, for future work?
– Your organisation and country

Closing date of midnight May 27th successful applicants informed w/c June 1st. Travel funds are still under review, successful applicants will be informed of full bursary cover at the time of notification.

Go to the main site, www.preventingoverdiagnosis.net to learn all about the conference.