Curbing cascades and low-value care in children


In the March issue of American Family Physician, two editorials discussed different aspects of the problem of unnecessary health care services. In “Curbing Cascades of Care: What They Are and How to Stop Them,” Dr. Ishani Ganguli, whose work in identifying low-value services I related in a previous post, presented the case of a healthy 30-year old man with a heart murmur detected at an annual wellness visit. The physician ordered an echocardiogram that suggested pulmonary hypertension, leading to a cardiology visit and a right heart catheterization which showed normal pressures. Of this “false alarm” and others like it, the author observed:

Such stories are viscerally familiar to most clinicians. This is a cascade of care: a seemingly unstoppable succession of medical services often initiated by an unnecessary test or unexpected result and driven by the desire to avoid even the slightest risk of missing a potentially life-threatening condition. … Each step in a cascade seems to be a rational progression from the step before. Yet taken together, these cascades can cause substantial harm to patients, including procedural complications, out-of-pocket costs, psychological distress, and stigma from new diagnoses. Clinicians, especially those practicing in rural settings, report anxiety, frustration, and wasted time and effort.

Dr. Ganguli then discussed two health systems strategies to stop cascades of care: avoiding unnecessary services that may trigger cascades (though Choosing Wisely is often easier said than done) and mitigating cascades through providing better point-of-care guidance regarding management of incidentalomas and engaging patients in shared decision-making rather than assuming that they will always prefer more testing in the face of uncertainty.

Harms included the temporary exclusion from sports, the direct costs of ECGs and the cardiology visit, and the indirect costs to the family (e.g., costs of transportation to the cardiologist visit, missed school or work). The ECG may have also caused unnecessary emotional stress to the patient and family because it erroneously raised the possibility of a potentially life-threatening cardiac disorder.

On the other end of the age spectrum, a recent report in JAMA Network Open described the development of Evaluating Opportunities to Decrease Low-Value Prescribing (EVOLV-Rx), a tool for detecting 18 low-value prescribing practices in older adults based on scientific validity and clinical usefulness.
Ultimately, EVOLV-Rx, the KIDs List for potentially inappropriate medications in children, and other interventions to reduce low-value care should be evaluated on improvements in patient-oriented and/or reported outcomes (increased benefit, decreased harm, few unintended consequences) rather than reductions in services alone. A 2019 systematic review of more than 100 studies of such interventions found that clinically meaningful measures were often lacking. Nonetheless, individual clinicians can follow the suggestions of Drs. Ganguli and Chua to spend less time handling false alarms and more on concerns and conditions that matter to patients.

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