Pathologists are required to identify areas of potential improvement in laboratory operation, noting tests that are high volume, expensive, difficult to perform, or of questionable medical benefit. As health carers strive to reduce the cost of an episode of care, the laboratory may, ironically, incur additional costs by providing testing that contributes to earlier diagnosis and better disease management, although any consequent decrease in the length of stay in hospital will of course be cost effective. Laboratory staff must work with physicians and the institution to design processes that reduce cost through decreased use and improved decision making, and by the selection of clinically relevant, cost effective technologies and testing protocols. To evaluate new methods and equipment, laboratory expenses must be refined to include workload recording of individual tests and cost accounting of supplies, equipment, facilities, and reagents.
Guidelines are urgently needed to assist test ordering. Inappropriate tests are costly, generate more inappropriate tests, and affect patient care. Ultimately, it is the pathologist’s job to help clinicians to order the right tests, at the right time, in the right order.
Tests that are repeated too early to provide useful information represent only a small proportion of those that are unnecessary or of marginal yield. However, they form a group that is relatively easy to target. In the study of Bates et al
8.6% of a defined group of commonly performed chemistry tests appeared to be redundant.
Table 6 shows some possible reasons for unnecessary repeat testing. Test duplication may occur simply because the requesting clinician is not aware that the test has already been performed. This should not have been a major justification for test repeats in our study, in which all tests had short turnaround times, of three to eight days (table 1). Where no result is immediately available a new test is ordered. Computerised physician ward ordering systems have been implemented in a variety of sites,35–37
and have been found to improve efficiency of care.37
Such behaviour might be modified by an interactive generic clinical request system that gives details of tests already ordered, and may also block the re-requesting of selected tests within a specified time frame. Computerised reminders, delivered to the ordering physician at the time a test is ordered, hold great potential for reducing the number of redundant tests.35
To be most effective, these reminders should be delivered in situations in which there is a high likelihood that they will be followed. Our study was performed in part to prepare for the implementation of alerts about potentially redundant tests in our hospital.
Table 6 Possible reasons for repeat testing
“Ultimately, it is the pathologist’s job to help clinicians to order the right tests, at the right time, in the right order”
However, even computerised alerts will be ignored if clinicians do not accept the recommendation, so our results also have implications for physician education. Some of the redundant tests probably resulted from a poor understanding of the half lives of tumour markers or a lack of appreciation of the value of repeated testing of autoantibodies. Others may have been caused by an overemphasis on surveillance. All of these issues may be addressed through education, and physicians in clinical laboratories should become more involved in bringing them to medical schools and residency programmes, and to practising physicians.
Tumour markers and autoantibody tests should be readily addressable with computerised reminders at the time of ordering, unless computerised ordering systems are bypassed in obtaining these tests. It may be appropriate to repeat certain tests more frequently in lieu of rejected requests—for example, to guide chemotherapy of multiple myeloma using β2 microglobulin values rather than immunoglobulin and/or paraprotein values.
It is complicated to assess the economic impact of the elimination of tests identified as redundant. Assuming that a system could prevent all such redundant tests from being performed, and assuming no adverse impact on patient care, total costs in our laboratory could be trimmed by about US$ 132 262.5/year. These savings could be used to employ additional staff who could contribute to the performance of income generating activities, such as clinical trials. It is only by reducing laboratory costs and increasing income that resources can be freed for the development of new “cutting edge” services.
Our study was performed at only one large university hospital laboratory, so that it may not be possible to generalise to other settings. A randomised trial is required to determine how many of these tests can actually be eliminated. Our projections were based on a small sample of the performed tests that may not have been representative of the entire range of tests. Another limitation is that clinical changes may have occurred that were not documented in the medical record. The tests that were analysed are those that are frequently used and for which published guidelines or recommendations exist. The usefulness of repeating other tests is an area for further investigation. Finally, even for the tests included in our study, more stringent intervals may make sense. Our criteria for defining an early repeat were usually more generous than those published in the literature. For example, most autoantibody tests not used in disease activity monitoring are never justified for repeat when positive, but may be repeated when negative.50–62
We have used an interval of four weeks for these tests, whether positive or negative, based on the half life of IgG (23 days).
“Combinations of practice guidelines, modifications to the laboratory requisition form, and funding policy changes were associated with significant decreases in the use of several tests”
Interventions to improve laboratory utilisation include feedback, physician education, laboratory requisition form changes, policies concerning laboratory test ordering, and financial incentives.81
Studies have concluded that educational interventions have mixed effects on laboratory test use.29,82–84
Significant decreases in test rates were seen when laboratory requisition forms were modified to contain fewer test choices,85
presented tests in physiologically sensible groups,86,87
or required ordering physicians to justify the need for the test.88
Some studies have shown that policies that prohibit particular tests in particular situations83
or limit the allowable total number of investigations89
are effective in decreasing use. However, their effect decays with time if the intervention programme is not continued.90
Combinations of practice guidelines, modifications to the laboratory requisition form, and funding policy changes were associated with significant decreases in the use of several tests. The effects of these interventions were persistent and avoided a large number of tests, resulting in decreased costs.91
In our audit, there was no attempt to determine whether the tests were ordered appropriately. Some of the repeated tests may have been requested to confirm a previous abnormal result, but this too is a practice that we would not encourage unless the results truly conflict with the clinical findings. In such cases, the physician should consult the laboratory directly, in response to which senior immunologists should maintain close involvement with the re-testing procedure. Physicians should become familiar with all the validation processes in place for ensuring accuracy of reported test results, and laboratory scientists must be able to provide convincing evidence that the laboratory’s results are trustworthy.
A population based assessment is optimal for the accurate measurement of repeat laboratory testing. This allows laboratory use to be studied for everyone within a geographical area, rather than within a particular hospital or health services organisation. A population based analysis allows laboratory use to be followed even when patients transfer between different sectors of the healthcare system, such as from the community to the hospital. Finally, a population based analysis produces unbiased utilisation rates because a true denominator (that is, all the people in a particular area) rather than a “pseudodenominator” (all the people who had a laboratory test) is used. This is necessary for a meaningful comparison between repeat laboratory testing and the utilisation of other health services. Generic clinical request systems have the potential to help clinicians screen for inappropriate, ineffective, potentially dangerous, or unnecessary tests.
Take home messages
- We carried out an audit to assess the extent of unnecessary repeat testing and to identify the circumstances under which repeat requests were made in a government tertiary hospital immunology laboratory
- Repeat requests for immunoglobulin measurement, common autoantibodies, and tumour markers within 12 weeks of a previous request made up 16.78% of the total workload, with an estimated cost of US$ 132 151
- This excessive waste of technician time and reagents might be reduced by the use of interventions such as computerised reminders