Applied Evidence

Choosing Wisely: 10 practices to stop—or adopt—to reduce overuse in health care

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The evidence-based recommendations presented here, made by the AAFP and other societies, can help you to avoid unnecessary testing and interventions.



When medical care is based on consistent, good-quality evidence, most physicians adopt it. However, not all care is well supported by the literature and may, in fact, be overused without offering benefit to patients. Choosing Wisely, at, is a health care initiative that highlights screening and testing recommendations from specialty societies in an effort to encourage patients and clinicians to talk about how to make high-value, effective health care decisions and avoid overuse. (See “Test and Tx overutilization: A bigger problem than you might think"1-3).

Test and Tx overutilization: A bigger problem than you might think

Care that isn’t backed up by the medical literature is adopted by some physicians and not adopted by others, leading to practice variations. Some variation is to be expected, since no 2 patients require exactly the same care, but substantial variations may be a clue to overuse.

A 2006 analysis of inpatient lab studies found that doctors ordered an average of 2.96 studies per patient per day, but only 29% of these tests (0.95 test/patient/day) contributed to management.1 A 2016 systematic review found more than 800 studies on overuse were published in a single year.2 One study of thyroid nodules followed almost 1000 patients with nodules as they underwent routine follow-up imaging. At the end of the study, 7 were found to have cancer, but of those, only 3 had enlarging or changing nodules that would have been detected with the follow-up imaging being studied. Three of the cancers were stable in size and 1 was found incidentally.3

Enabling physician and patient dialogue. The initiative began in 2010 when the American Board of Internal Medicine convened a panel of experts to identify low-value tests and therapies. Their list took the form of a “Top Five Things” that may not be high value in patient care, and it used language tailored to patients and physicians so that they could converse meaningfully. Physicians could use the evidence to make a clinical decision, and patients could feel empowered to ask informed questions about recommendations they received. The initiative has now expanded to include ways that health care systems can reduce low-value interventions.

Stoplight attached to stethoscope

Scope of participation. Since the first Choosing Wisely recommendations were published in 2013, more than 80 professional associations have contributed lists of their own. Professional societies participate voluntarily. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), Society of General Internal Medicine, and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have contributed lists relevant to primary care. All Choosing Wisely recommendations can be searched or sorted by specialty organization. Recommendations are reviewed and revised regularly. If the evidence becomes conflicted or contradictory, recommendations are withdrawn.

Making meaningful improvements by Choosing Wisely

Several studies have shown that health care systems can implement Choosing Wisely recommendations to reduce overuse of unnecessary tests. A 2015 study examined the effect of applying a Choosing Wisely recommendation to reduce the use of continuous pulse oximetry in pediatric inpatients with asthma, wheezing, or bronchiolitis. The recommendation, from the Society of Hospital Medicine–Pediatric Hospital Medicine, advises against continuous pulse oximetry in children with acute respiratory illnesses unless the child is using supplemental oxygen.4 This study, done at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, found that within 3 months of initiating a protocol on all general pediatrics floors, the average time on pulse oximetry after meeting clinical goals decreased from 10.7 hours to 3.1 hours. In addition, the percentage of patients who had their continuous pulse oximetry stopped within 2 hours of clinical stability (a goal time) increased from 25% to 46%.5

Patients are important drivers of health care utilization. A 2003 study showed that physicians are more likely to order referrals, tests, and prescriptions when patients ask for them, and that nearly 1 in 4 patients did so.6 A 2002 study found that physicians granted all but 3% of patient’s requests for orders or tests, and that fulfilling requests correlated with patient satisfaction in the specialty office studied (cardiology) but not in the primary care (internal medicine) office.7

Choosing Wisely recommendations are not guidelines or mandates. They are intended to be evidencebased advice from a specialty society to its members and to patients about care that is often unnecessary.

From its inception, Choosing Wisely has considered patients as full partners in conversations about health care utilization. Choosing Wisely partners with Consumer Reports to create and disseminate plain-language summaries of recommendations. Community groups and physician organizations have also participated in implementation efforts. In 2018, Choosing Wisely secured a grant to expand outreach to diverse or underserved communities.

Choosing Wisely recommendations are not guidelines or mandates. They are intended to be evidence-based advice from a specialty society to its members and to patients about care that is often unnecessary. The goal is to create a conversation and not to eliminate these services from ever being offered or used.

Continue to: Improve your practice with these 10 primary care recommendations


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