Planning for Surgery? You Might Not Need All Those Tests Beforehand.

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Sometimes a preoperative test of questionable value results in unanticipated complications, as happened to a man in his 50s scheduled for repair of a very painful hernia. Two Colorado doctors reported in 2014 that the man’s lab tests and physical exam were normal. But a chest X-ray, ordered because he had a history of mild asthma, suggested he had a nodule on a lung.

Doctors delayed the surgery until he got a CT scan, which did not confirm a lung nodule but did find one on an adrenal gland. Again, doctors postponed surgery to allow for further work-up of the adrenal nodule, which was ultimately found to be benign. The man finally had his hernia repaired after six additional months of debilitating pain and repeated anxiety over incidental test findings suggesting he could have cancer.

However, doctors are making some headway. In 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. John N. Mafi, an internist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues described an effort to reduce “low-value preoperative care” for patients about to have cataract surgery. New guidelines were issued, and a specially trained quality improvement nurse advised the surgeons about the new recommended protocol. The result, as assessed in a controlled clinical trial of 1,054 patients, was a dramatic decline in preoperative testing, a significant projected cost saving after the first year and “no measurable adverse effects” on the patients’ surgery, he said.

Perhaps most problematic among common preoperative procedures is a cardiac stress test, which assesses blood flow to the heart while patients exercise. Dr. Alana E. Sigmund, an internal medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York who has studied physicians’ responses to preoperative guidelines, said in an interview, “Cardiac stress testing is over-ordered. If there’s no indication of a heart problem, like shortness of breath, there’s no reason to do this test prior to surgery.”

The latest guidelines, which the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association issued in 2014, advise that a cardiac stress test before surgery is generally not recommended for patients lacking symptoms suggestive of heart disease. The guidelines leave the decision to test up to the doctor, and you might think it’s better to rule out a possible heart problem before surgery. But existing evidence shows no health or lifesaving benefit from a preoperative stress test when the patient lacks cardiac symptoms or has fewer than two major risk factors for having a heart attack, like high blood pressure and smoking, especially when the prospective surgery itself is low-risk.