Do You Know the Costs You Generate by Ordering a Test?

Before buying something, we usually want to know the price. Before buying something expensive like insurance, a car or a house, we typically shop around to compare and convince ourselves that we get the best deal available. Before we spend money we usually want to know that what we are about to get is worth the cost.

Why is it then that as physicians we rarely have a clue what cost is accrued when we order a diagnostic test? If we don’t know, how should our trainees learn? And it is not just about the costs directly associated with what we order. There is potential downstream harm (and the costs associated with fixing it) that may be inadvertently generated by placing orders without much thinking and awareness. “Routine screening” with tumor markers such as PSA, AFP or CEA are well documented examples.

Daily blood work may be justified in certain situations, but not every inpatient needs it. In fact, who has not seen patients becoming anemic and requiring a transfusion while in hospital – related to daily blood draws rather than their underlying disease? Why are “routine” admission Xrays and EKGs still ordered – against all evidence? Why do we order lab panels with, in many instances, redundant tests – a GGT adds usually little or nothing to an ALP, isn’t it? These are just examples, a comprehensive discussion is beyond the scope of this blog, I refer to “Choosing Wisely Canada” ( and “Choosing Wisely Manitoba” (

I have heard people say that healthcare in this country is free. So why bother? We all know that this is short sighted: health care in this country is (fortunately) universally accessible, but, like everywhere else, by no means free; we all pay for it with our taxes. The (tax) money available for spending in health care is limited – unless we compromise invest-ments into other sectors equally (or even more) important for the future of our society such as education and infrastructure. Also the amount spent on unnecessary testing is no longer available for investment elsewhere within the health care system. Not to speak of the indirect and the intangible costs associated with harm (and fixing it) that we may potentially cause by a falsely positive result or a complication – which will eventually happen with any test, just on statistical grounds.

Bottom line: We need to become more aware of the (direct and indirect) costs we generate by ordering tests. It is mandatory to have a management question when we order a test. Just wanting to know cannot suffice. The result of a test needs to answer that question and affect the management of the patient. When we order a test we should order the most appropriate one – escalating from an Ultrasound over a CT to an MRI for a given suspected abdominal abnormality may not always be the most (cost) effective choice.

Eberhard Renner, MD