How To Decide if You Really Need a Test or Procedure

Be a Savvy Health Care Consumer

Wary woman.
Deciding whether or not you really need a test or procedure your doctor has recommended can be tough. Image © Compassionate Eye Foundation/David Oxberry/OJO Images/Getty Images

Medical care can be expensive and, in some cases, risky. It is not always a simple matter to figure out whether or not you really need a test or procedure.

We would all like to trust that our physicians only recommend what’s best for our health and in our overall best interest. However, savvy health care consumers should still do their own research before making a decision about an expensive or risky test, procedure, or drug.

Physicians are human, too. They have to protect themselves from malpractice suits that could potentially devastate them financially. They have to earn enough money to put their kids through college and pay their mortgages. These pressures are bound to influence what tests a physician orders and what procedures he or she recommends, even if he or she really does have your best interest at heart.

Additionally, the majority of physicians are paid for how much they do, not how much they don’t do. The system actually encourages doctors to order tests that might not be absolutely necessary and procedures that might not truly have to be done. After all, a surgeon gets paid a lot more for performing rotator cuff surgery than he or she gets paid for referring you to a physical therapist.But, from the patient’s point of view, rotator cuff surgery carries more risks and is more expensive than physical therapy.

So, how do you decide if you really need a test or procedure? There’s no single answer, but the following resources will help.

Choosing Wisely and Consumer Health Choices

Check out Choosing Wisely to see if your particular test or procedure is on one of its lists. If so, Choosing Wisely provides information about when a particular test or procedure may be necessary and when it may not be the best option.


Choosing Wisely works together with Consumer Reports to get the word out to health care consumers via Consumer Reports’ Consumer Health Choices website. If your test or procedure is on one of Choosing Wisely’s lists, use the information presented there as a base from which to spur conversation with your doctor about whether or not you really need the test or procedure.

Ask Questions

It is important to gather a lot of information. This could mean asking your doctor some very specific, probing questions. Examples include:

  • What information will this test provide or what benefit will this procedure give me?
  • Is there any other way to get this same information or benefit?
  • Why is the information or benefit necessary?
  • Would you make different recommendations about my treatment options if the test results show one result as opposed to another?
  • What will the likely consequences be if I choose not to get the test or procedure?
  • Are there any risks associated with this test or procedure?
  • How do those risks stack up against the risks I’d run if I didn’t have the test or procedure?

Second Opinion

If you’re facing a difficult decision or a very expensive or risky procedure, consider a second opinion. Health insurance companies usually pay for second opinions because they, too, want to make sure you’re only getting care that you really need.

If you decide to get a second opinion, be open with your physician about it. Most won’t take offense. Getting a second opinion doesn’t mean you don’t trust your doctor, it means you’re being a savvy health care consumer.

When choosing a second opinion physician, many people choose another local physician in the same specialty field. Some even choose a partner of the physician who gave the first opinion. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that decision, it wouldn’t be unusual to find that partners in the same group practice have very similar practice styles. After all, they’re partners.

If you’d like to get a more diverse second opinion, consider getting a second opinion from a physician with no relationship to your first doctor. For example, if you live in Orlando, Florida, you might choose to get your second opinion in Tampa or Ft. Lauderdale rather than in Orlando. Or, you might choose to get your second opinion from tertiary care referral center or a university medical center’s specialty clinic.

Once you’ve chosen who should provide your second opinion, don’t forget to gather your medical records and the results of any prior tests or failed treatment attempts to share with the second opinion physician. You don’t want doctor number two to have to repeat the same tests doctor number one has already done.

Learn more about how to prepare for your second opinion appointment in “How To Work With a Second Opinion Doctor.”

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